A relatively quiet campaign for seats on North Carolina’s top court appears to be changing, with a conservative group responsible for attack ads in previous judicial races buying TV spots up to Election Day.
Justice for All NC, which targeted Democrats in a 2012 state Supreme Court race and again in the May primary, has purchased air time on at least five North Carolina TV stations this week.
The group, which does not have a website and uses an address in a Raleigh strip mall, recently received more than $400,000 in donations from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports GOP candidates and has made court races a new priority.
Justice for All has also received $75,000 from the American Federation for Children, a group pushing for charter school expansion and school vouchers.
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The North Carolina Judicial Coalition, which was active in the 2012 judicial races, reported holdings of $110,000.
This year’s Supreme Court races already are the most expensive judicial elections in the state’s history, attracting more than $4 million, the Institute for Southern Studies and the N.C. Voters for Clean Elections say. The campaigns are the first since the Republican-led General Assembly ended public financing of court elections in 2013.
The Supreme Court candidates have raised almost $3.5 million themselves. Another $1.3 million has been spent by outside groups.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said the out-of-state money for the courts races is “really disturbing.”
“That’s the last part of our government that is hopefully shielded from complete partisan bickering, and the area where you want to see the facts and the laws and the Constitution trump partisan politics,” he said.
“It’s distorting the integrity of the judicial system. … You can buy a seat on the Supreme Court a lot cheaper than you can buy the governor’s mansion.”
According to new public disclosures, Justice for All has used some of its money to buy 30-second ad spots on three Wilmington stations and at least two stations in Greensboro/High Point.
As of Wednesday, the group had not made similar buys in the Charlotte or Raleigh markets.
However, Justice for All spent thousands to get on Charlotte stations in the final days before the May primary, airing ads that accused Robin Hudson, a Democratic incumbent on the state Supreme Court, of being soft on child molesters.
The attacks drew national attention to how large infusions of out-of-state money were being used to influence supposedly nonpartisan court races. In North Carolina, attorneys and judges from both political parties condemned the ads as misleading and inaccurate.
Reached Wednesday at his business in Greensboro, Jeff Hyde, co-director of Justice for All NC, declined comment on how his group intends to spend its new money or what any new ads might say.
Hudson, who appeared in Charlotte on Wednesday morning with two other Democratic candidates for Supreme Court to criticize political money from out-of-state groups, said she expects a repeat of the last-minute attacks that targeted her in May.
“It’s not my experience that a group like this spends large sums of money to say nice things about me,” Hudson told the Observer.
She said the large donation from the Republican State Leadership Committee exceeds what she and fellow Democrats Sam J. “Jimmy” Ervin IV and Cheri Beasley have been able to raise for their races from voters inside the state.
“North Carolina voters are supposed to be selecting our judges … not outside groups that come out of nowhere and dump a lot of money on us for what purpose we don’t really know.”
Hudson’s opponent, Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson of Charlotte, said the advertisements that ran against his opponent last spring were “new territory in North Carolina, uniquely severe … and destructive to the judiciary.”
“Robin Hudson and I have had a cordial disagreement on who is best prepared to bring broad value to the court,” said Levinson, who finished second to Hudson in May’s three-candidate field. “What’s best for North Carolina is a positive campaign.”
Target of ads unclear
The media buys for Justice for All NC are being made by Innovative Advertising of Covington, La., the same company that purchased air time for the attacks on Hudson last spring.
It’s unclear who the new advertisements will target. Ervin faces fellow Appeals Court Judge Bob Hunter of Greensboro. Earlier this summer, Hunter said publicly that he would “not tolerate untruths” about his opponent.
Beasley is defending her seat against Michael Robinson. Chief Justice Mark Martin faces Ola Lewis, Brunswick County’s senior resident Superior Court judge.
Two weeks ago, a media buyer for Justice for All NC was asking if Beasley had purchased any air time on WWAY in Wilmington. As of Wednesday morning, Beasley had not, according to an email from the station.
Though the Republican State Leadership Committee does not disclose donors, the Center for Responsive Politics used tax reports to identify its biggest donors as the tobacco company Reynolds American ($1.1 million) and insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield ($958,000). Koch Industries, headed by brothers and conservative kingmakers Charles and David Koch, gave $460,000. Henry Faison, a late Charlotte developer, contributed $60,000.
In April, the group launched its “Judicial Fairness Initiative,” which targeted state court races and focuses on helping voters “understand the ideology of candidates,” according to the group’s website.
The North Carolina Judicial Coalition is a state political action committee. Its donors include conservative Raleigh businessman Robert Luddy, who gave $40,000, and the Charlotte Checkers Hockey Club, which donated $25,000.
The test kitchen
Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor who specializes in media in politics, said the influx of money into the state’s supposedly nonpartisan campaigns seems inevitable.
For more than 30 years, North Carolina has been a political “test kitchen” for political strategies and new campaign advertising techniques, Guillory said.
“It’s not really surprising in the court races because it’s been building. In this polarized, intensely political atmosphere, even the judicial races get sucked in.”