Our courts aren’t for sale

Editor’s note: N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson delivered remarks at her investiture on Tuesday. Here are excerpts:

North Carolina’s 2014 election cycle was remarkable. This seems like an appropriate time to reflect on where we are in our state’s judiciary, and where we want to go. A lot happened during the past year to highlight a dangerous crossroads I believe we have entered.

As I am sure you noticed, I just took an oath (as have all of us on your Supreme Court) to dispense justice without favoritism, and to be fair and impartial in applying the law and the constitutions of the United States and North Carolina. I interpret that to mean that I am to bring no agenda, personal or political, to this bench as I work to help us resolve the complex and difficult issues that come to this court.

However, we learned during the past year that groups are at work in this country – and now in our state – who want to change that. We entered new and uncharted territory when outside groups launched attack ads on me in April, the first time I have been able to find that outside groups spent money in an effort to influence a state judicial primary election.

A dangerous shift

But the election was remarkable for more than just that. Most of the political commentators – and they were numerous, both in-state and in publications and other outlets across the country – labelled them the worst, most despicable false ads they had ever seen.

To quote from an op-ed column by Joe Nocera of The New York Times, “One of the most shocking ads this political season was aimed at a woman named Robin Hudson.” Imagine that.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, an article on the front page of The Los Angeles Times included a comment from the head of the political committee behind the ads that targeted me. He explained that the ad campaign here and in other states began in response to complaints from state legislators who were unhappy to see laws they passed overturned by their state supreme courts.

Likewise, an earlier article in The Washington Post quoted sources as saying state legislators wanted state justices who would help them build a “firewall” around their legislative agenda.

This sounds an awful lot like wanting judges to come into the court with a particular political agenda. And that does not seem to me to be what our oath requires or permits us to do.

So this strikes me as a good time to take stock of how we deal with this, to make sure we keep our state’s judiciary fair-minded and independent.

Needed: impartial judges

Our three-branch system of government depends on judges making fearless, independent decisions without regard to politics. Although we are elected, we are not the same kind of politicians as in the other branches. We do not present a campaign platform or promise policies or favors to get elected. In fact, that is what we cannot do, other than to pledge to apply the law to each case and to be impartial.

But there are good reasons for optimism. First, the attacks were so implausible and offensive that they attracted a lot of attention in the news media, which I think effectively explained to the public what was going on. Many people across the state paid attention, and a lot of them got mad – and then they got to work.

Because of all of this, it looked like more people paid more attention to our appellate judicial races in 2014 than in past years. Thankfully, the attacks did not work here or in several other states around the country.

A lot of people let it be known that they did not approve of such attacks in judges’ elections. North Carolina citizens do not want judges to get down in the political mud, and their reaction was strong.

Public must stay vigilant

It turns out that ordinary citizens do care about judicial elections, and you want judges who come into court with an open mind and a commitment to fairness – which is, of course, the way we promise to do this job when we take that oath. And since our cases are your cases, your stake is very high.

And so I pledge to continue to take this work very seriously, in accordance with my oath. I hope we all will, for the future of the state, and for our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.

As we do this important work, we depend on the public’s vigilance to help protect our system of justice. To a great extent, that is up to you and your efforts. We all must keep sending the message that our citizens declared this past year: North Carolina’s courts are not for sale.

Together, judges and citizens alike, we must protect our democracy’s vital court system and preserve our state’s noble tradition of a fair-minded, honest, and independent judiciary.