Special interest millions are trying to buy the N.C. Supreme Court

The Observer editorial board

Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds is the target of a new misleading political attack ad.
Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds is the target of a new misleading political attack ad. File photo

First it was the 2012 banjo picker, with a goofy but clear message backing Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby: “He’s got criminals on the run … got ’em running scared. … Walk the line or you’ll do hard time, criminals best beware.”

Then it was an ominous ad in 2014 attacking Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson as a friend to child molesters. “Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson sided with the predators… took the side of the convicted molesters. Justice Robin Hudson: Not tough on child molesters, not fair to victims.”

Now, in 2016, with another Supreme Court election there’s another inappropriate ad, this one targeting Justice Bob Edmunds. Edmunds, the ad says, “wrote the decision supporting his party’s discrimination” in a redistricting case. Edmunds was part of a “power grab” that “was all about race.”

All three ads were funded by shadowy independent groups who don’t disclose their donors – but who definitely have an agenda. Such groups are pumping millions of dollars into North Carolina’s judicial races, undercutting the judiciary’s credibility and giving voters the impression that judges and justices are for sale.

This is a predictable symptom of the way we select judges in North Carolina. Judges have to win the most votes, like any other politician. So they raise money and benefit from special interest money, like any other politician.

The ad against Edmunds essentially depicts him as a racist, which is unfair. Edmunds did write the 4-3 decision upholding the legislature’s 2011 redistricting map. But the attacks on Edmunds ring a bit hollow, given that the 12th District was twice drawn by Democrats with racial motivations. The district Edmunds and the court upheld was quite similar to the one Democrats had previously drawn. That map, while flawed in our opinion, was also pre-cleared by the Obama Justice Department.

All this brings to mind a study by two Emory Law School professors released last year. Joanna Shepherd and Michael Kang found that judges are tougher on criminal defendants because they don’t want to be targeted as soft on crime in TV ads during their reelection campaigns. The more ads aired during Supreme Court elections in a state, the less often justices side with a criminal defendant on appeal. Most of the independent money is concerned with issues other than criminal appeals, but donors know the soft-on-crime message is the most effective way to doom a judge’s election.

The result? Ads like those for Newby and against Hudson. The ad against Edmunds is a cousin, making race an issue in a campaign that pits a white incumbent against a black challenger.

None of this helps achieve justice. North Carolina should reform its approach to judicial selection, starting by reinstating public funding.

That would at least help candidates combat unfair attack ads and offset the millions in special interest money that currently corrupts the process.