Voters seek balance on the state Supreme Court

Voters seek balance on the state Supreme Court

- in Law and the Courts

SM-1105B

Four seats were up for grabs in yesterday’s state Supreme Court races, and despite a flood of outside money from conservative groups, voters chose justices who will move the court a little closer to the center and help it maintain at least a semblance of diversity.

It was a race for the fundraising record books – the first after state lawmakers eliminated public financing – with a tab of more than $5 million thus far. (The numbers won’t be final until all reports are filed with the state Board of Elections at the end of the year.)

Incumbent justices Mark Martin and Robin Hudson and Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV won by comfortable margins, but the race between current justice Cheri Beasley and her challenger, conservative Winston-Salem lawyer Mike Robinson, went down to the wire.

Beasley won by just 3,200 votes, giving Robinson the right to ask for a recount before November 18.

In Court of Appeals races, incumbent judges Mark Davis and Donna Stroud retained their seats, and Special Superior Court Judge Lucy Inman defeated conservative District Court Judge Bill Southern.

John Tyson, a former Court of Appeals judge, garnered the most votes in the 19-candidate race for the seat vacated by retiring Chief Judge John Martin, with 24 percent of the vote.

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As expected, Chief Justice Mark Martin retained his seat by a wide margin, defeating challenger Ola Lewis by more than a million votes.

Martin, the longest-serving justice on the court, ascended to the chief justice spot late this past summer, appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory following the retirement of former justice Sarah Parker.

Backed by the state GOP and widely-supported among lawyers in the state, Martin also raised more than three-times as much in campaign dollars than did his opponent.

Lewis, currently the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge in Brunswick County, ran as an anti-establishment candidate. Although a Republican like Martin, she lacked support from her party and cast her race for the seat as a challenge to the well-heeled attorneys and business groups supporting Martin.

Voters got to know sitting Justice Robin Hudson early this election, as she landed in the May primaries with challenges from two Republican candidates, Eric Levinson and Jeanette Doran.

Outside groups spent nearly a million dollars in that race for a vicious attack ad portraying Hudson as soft on child molesters, based upon a distorted interpretation of her dissent in a case concerning electronic monitoring of defendants convicted of certain sexual offenses.

That ad drew widespread criticism and ultimately backfired, as it allowed Hudson to educate voters – otherwise typically disinterested in a judicial primary race – about her experience and her role on the Supreme Court.

Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson, Hudson’s challenger in yesterday’s race, had garnered significant support from the Republican establishment and built a sizable war chest of more than $500,000 in contributions.

Despite that, Hudson outraised him by $200,000 and emerged the winner by more than 100,000 votes.

When Mark Martin moved to the Chief Justice slot, he left his associate justice slot open for new candidates, and two current Court of Appeal judges, Bob Hunter Jr. and Sam Ervin IV stepped into the race.

It was perhaps the most cordial of the Supreme Court races, as both candidates – friends and colleagues on the appeals court — openly criticized the recent history of partisan tactics funded by outside interests.

Ervin had lost his 2012 challenge to Justice Paul Newby in large part due to the million-dollar last minute banjo ad blitz funded by such interests.

This time around there was no such ad and Ervin raised nearly twice as much as his opponent ($650,000 to $385,000). Despite Hunter’s strong support from the GOP and the legal community, Ervin likewise won his race by more than 100,000 votes.

And in a race that went down to the wire, current justice Cheri Beasley – the lone African-American on the court – eked out a victory over Winston-Salem attorney Mike Robinson by just 3,200 votes, but may now be headed for a recount.

State law gives a candidate an automatic right to a recount in any statewide race in which the margin is less than 0.5 percent or 10,000 votes, whichever is lower. Robinson has until November 18 to ask for such a recount.

That Beasley, with more than 15 years of experience serving as a judge at each level of the state’s judicial system, struggled in a race against a candidate without any judicial experience is a testament to the power of outside money in judicial elections.

Robinson had strong GOP-backing, along with a $100,000 fundraising advantage over Beasley, according to recent campaign filings.

He also benefited from a last-minute influx of outside money, including $400,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, used to fund a jingle ad reminiscent of the Newby banjo one.

Whether in the end sending voters to the polls singing “I Like Mike” was enough to unseat Beasley depends now on the outcome of a recount – if one occurs.

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With four of seven seats at stake, the outcome of this year’s Supreme Court races will shape the direction the court takes for many years to come.

As currently composed, the “non-partisan” court is at least somewhat diverse — by gender, race, political affiliation and professional background. Of the seven justices, four are men and three, women; five are Republicans and two, Democrats; and six are white, one, African-American.

Had all Republican candidates won in the four races yesterday though, the state Supreme Court would have become all-conservative, all-white and predominantly all-male.

In that way, it would have resembled the state’s federal bench — one of the least diverse in the nation.

Now instead the court will shift to a 4-3 conservative majority (assuming the votes stand after any recount) and retain at least some semblance of diversity, with two women serving — including Beasley, the lone African-American.

Diversity on the bench has long been viewed as both critical to the public’s perception of fairness and informative to the judges themselves.

For the public, having judges on the bench who look more like a cross-section of the population and who share experiences or backgrounds similar to those appearing before them provides the comfort and confidence of fairness.

And for the judges, having colleagues of different races, ethnicities and genders as well as varying professional experiences brings a collective wisdom to the courts.

Courts are deliberative bodies, and judges learn from each other,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center of Justice. “More diversity on the courts brings more life experiences that can inform judicial decision-making.”

Diversity in race, gender and background matters for a court that has in recent years garnered a reputation for favoring business over consumer and environmental issues and government over defendants in criminal cases.

In many of those decisions, Justices Hudson and Beasley have been dissenting voices.

And from a public perception certainly, restoring some balance to the court is especially important given the controversial cases now pending there.

The redistricting case has been pending there for almost a year now, without decision, as are two Racial Justice Act cases which were argued last April.

Those cases are unlikely to be affected by the results of yesterday’s races, as new justices could not participate in any decision. And of course the current court could still rule on those cases before the end of the year.

But in October, the court exercised some muscle and took five controversial cases away from the Court of Appeals, including a challenge to the state’s school voucher program (decided in the trial court against proponents of vouchers) and a challenge to Duke Energy’s clean-up of coal ash sites (decided in the trial court against Duke Energy).

That the court took those cases indicates that at least some of the justices already have thoughts about how the ultimate outcome in each case– and that’s not likely an affirmance of the trial court.

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