Millions flowing into Supreme Court races

The Observer editorial board

Candidates and outside groups spent $6 million on high court races last year.
Candidates and outside groups spent $6 million on high court races last year. hlynch@newsobserver.com

We used to be small potatoes, far behind the big established programs like Texas and other power players. But then we started bringing in some talented recruits, which pumped up giving from boosters, and now we’re ranked nationally.

College football? The Bowl Championship Series? No, we’re talking about special interest money flooding into North Carolina’s judicial races. It’s a different BCS: Buy Certain Seats.

A report out last week from the Brennan Center for Justice and other watchdog groups showed that North Carolina ranked second in the nation last year for money spent on state Supreme Court elections. More than $6 million was aimed at North Carolina’s high court seats, and almost all of it came from business, lobbyists, lawyers and other special interests with a direct stake in who serves on the court.

The politicization of North Carolina’s highest court is nearly complete, and it’s a travesty for impartial justice – or, at a minimum, the appearance of it. How confident would you be that you’re getting a fair hearing at the Supreme Court when the lawyer opposite you gave thousands of dollars to the justices and he’s representing a company that gave tens of thousands on their behalf?

The “Bankrolling the Bench” report details the N.C. giving and shows it’s part of a troubling national trend. The $6 million was the most ever spent on Supreme Court seats in North Carolina. The state’s four Supreme Court races sparked 10,903 television ads, the most in the country. About 40 percent of the donations came from lawyers and lobbyists, including many who will have cases before the court.

Not all the money was raised and spent by candidates. The Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington funneled $1.3 million into the races, largely to run TV ads alleging that a respected Supreme Court justice is soft on child molesters. The N.C. Chamber’s political arm and a conservative-backed group called the North Carolina Judicial Coalition each spent hundreds of thousands more.

It all threatens to reduce the judiciary to the same political player as government’s other branches. And it will only accelerate without changes.

It matters. The outside funders got their money primarily from business interests. The tobacco company Reynolds American gave $100,000 to the chamber group, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield gave $75,000, the report said. Duke Energy, which has reportedly given $285,000 to the RSLC, has had major cases before the Supreme Court. Business interests that back school vouchers donated tens of thousands to groups that spent on the races while that case was before the court.

North Carolinians deserve better. The legislature killed public financing for judicial campaigns, and the 2014 election was the first without it since 2002. Spending spiked.

Legislators should reinstate public financing. But as long as we elect high court and Court of Appeals judges, the appearance of impartiality will be threatened. North Carolina should move to some kind of hybrid appointive system and remove the need for justices to hit up special interests for cash.