RALEIGH — North Carolina’s statewide judicial elections rarely get big headlines. They may be fewer this fall because the ballot and political talk are dominated by more familiar and expensive campaigns.
“The presidential race and the governor’s race are hogging a lot of the attention in the political world, and people are really engaged in those,” said Brent Laurenz, executive director of the nonpartisan North Carolina Center for Voter Education. Many newcomers to the state may not realize North Carolina judges are chosen in elections, Laurenz said.
The result could mean many voters for the top races may not bother picking between four pairs of candidates running for the state Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals in November. In 2008 and 2010, about a quarter of the people who voted in top-of-the ticket races didn’t vote for the Supreme Court race.
“A 25 percent dropoff rate from all the other races, it’s worrisome,” Court of Appeals Judge Linda McGee said at a recent judicial debate. “You want people to be as well informed as possible in trying to make their determinations and decisions, but you don’t want them overlooking judges.”
In this year’s only Supreme Court race, Associate Justice Paul Newby is seeking another eight-year term but is being challenged by sitting Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV. The three Court of Appeals races involve McGee, who is being challenged by Raleigh lawyer David Robinson; incumbent Wanda Bryant of Durham, who is running against Cabarrus County District Court Judge Marty McGee; and incumbent Cressie Thigpen of Raleigh, who faces another Raleigh attorney, Chris Dillon.
All eight candidates qualified for the voluntary public financing program, in which each Supreme Court candidate received $240,100 and each Court of Appeals candidate $164,400 because they met strict fundraising restrictions. While the program is designed to remove the perception that campaign donations could influence bench decisions, the program amounts can limit television campaigning. Linda McGee, Bryant and Thigpen have been campaigning together under the “Keep Fair Judges” label.
At least two outside independent groups also have spent money or are raising money to promote Newby, a move that worries some campaign finance reform groups but is supported by others in the name of free political speech. A U.S. Supreme Court decision also means the state can no longer give extra funds to publicly-financed candidates who get outspent by the independent expenditure groups.
Newby and Ervin both say they have bipartisan support and have taken objective, legally sound positions while writing hundreds of opinions. Newby, a former business attorney and federal prosecutor previously from Guilford County, said he’s supported by four former Supreme Court chief justices — two Democrat and two Republican.
“I strive in each case to fairly, impartially and consistently apply the law,” Newby said recently. “I’ve earned a reputation of being a hard-working, thoughtful, honest justice.”
Ervin, who lives in Morganton, said he thrives on complex cases, activities he honed while serving on the state Utilities Commission.
“I believe the job of a judge is to be fair, impartial and decide cases based on law and not to attempt to affect any sort of political or ideological agenda,” he said.
Still, a thread of politics runs through the appeals court races.
The partisan makeup of the state’s highest court could tilt if Ervin wins. While judicial races have been officially nonpartisan for almost a decade — meaning the votes of straight-ticket voters aren’t registered for these contests, either — Republicans hold a 4-3 advantage on the Supreme Court when the voter registrations of the judges are considered. Democrats haven’t held a majority since 1998.
Ervin, a registered Democrat, has received endorsements from the state AFL-CIO and trial lawyers’ association. Newby, a Republican, has been endorsed by the North Caro lina Chamber and state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Newby has spoken at Republican Party meetings, while Ervin is the grandson of Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., known best for leading the Watergate investigation in the 1970s. Linda McGee, Bryant and Thigpen are registered Democrats. Robinson, Marty McGee and Dillon are Republicans. Democrats currently sit in nine of the 15 Court of Appeals seats.
Linda McGee is the second-longest serving judge currently on the Court of Appeals, which meets in three-judge panels to hear all cases appealed from District Court and Superior Court except for death penalty convictions. She said she’s written about 2,000 opinions.
Robinson, who moved to North Carolina in 1990 and works at a Raleigh law firm, is a business transaction attorney and self-described “conservative candidate” for the court. He said his skill set of business and employment law, as well as his love of the state constitution, would serve the court well.
Bryant was first appointed to the court by then-Gov. Mike Easley in 2001. Bryant said she’s written more 1,200 opinions and has other traits — knowledge and common sense among them — that make her a fair judge.
The opinions, Bryant said, affect “the lives and liberty of all North Carolinians — I like to say from cradle to grave and sometimes beyond when we’re talking about estate issues.”
Marty McGee, first appointed to a judgeship in 2000, said no one else currently serving on the Court of Appeals has more experience as a trial court judge that he does. He said Cabarrus County District Court handles more than 50,000 cases annually. “More than a decade of work in some of our state’s busiest courtrooms has well-prepared me” for the appeals court, he said.
The matchup of Thigpen and Dillon is a rematch of sorts from 2010, when the two were among 13 who ran for a Court of Appeals seat that had been vacated. Neither ultimately won the election, but Thigpen, who had been appointed in 2010 to fill the vacancy, was appointed by Gov. Beverly Perdue to fill another vacancy on the court in early 2011.
Dillon said his work as a community bank executive gives him experience working with small businesses that few on the court have and would help in rendering opinions. Thigpen was previously a partner in a Raleigh law firm for more than 30 years and was a special Superior Court judge for two years.