How do you keep the North Carolina Supreme Court race nonpartisan when the ideological makeup of the bench hangs in the balance?
There’s not really an answer, especially this year, when so much is at stake and big outside money wants a say.
The ballot won’t disclose Incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds’ or his opponent Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan’s respective political parties, but it’s no secret that the former is supported by the Republican Party and the latter by the Democratic Party.
Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court and the Edmunds’ seat is the only one up for election this year, prompting many observers to consider this race one of the most important contests on the ballot this election cycle.
Political party committees have spent more than $38,000 combined on their candidates, but that doesn’t even come close to the close to $2.2 million groups operating independently of the campaigns have spent.
Candidates have had to rely heavily on big-money fundraising since a public financing program was nixed in 2013 as part of a voter ID bill pushed by the Republican-led legislature. It was prefaced by a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which held that corporations have the right to spend unlimited amounts of money calling for the election or defeat of candidates.
Combine those two factors, and you’ve got races dominated by special interests and outside money.
“It’s a whole different environment now than it was four to six years ago,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. “The result of it is uglier, nastier campaigns that are almost over the top.”
Outside spending has come from groups including the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the N.C. Chamber IE (which includes big contributors from Koch Industries and Piedmont Natural Gas), N.C. Families First, Fair Judges and Action N.C., according to Facing South.
Groups who have a special interest in the race include attorneys, educators, environmentalists and law enforcement. All have spent money on the two candidates.
In Edmunds’ third quarter campaign finance disclosure, individuals involved in the legal field, including those who retired from law, donated approximately $20,832, or 16.8 percent of his overall reported donations, $123,673.68. Individuals from the education field gave $1,400 or 1.1 percent of his overall.
In Morgan’s third quarter campaign finance disclosure, individuals involved in the legal field donated approximately $37,504.17, or 18.6 percent of his overall reported donations, $202,017.14. Individuals from the education field gave $23,914.11 or 11.8 percent of his overall. Individuals also appeared to be consistent donors in the report.
Morgan’s biggest donors in the third quarter were Adam Lewis, an investor from Coral Gables, Florida; Fred Stanback, retired from conservation from Salisbury; Thomas Steyer, environmental advocate and philanthropist from San Francisco, California; Kathryn Taylor, CEO of Beneficial State Bank from Redwood City, California; and Robert Zaytoun, an attorney from Raleigh. They each gave the maximum $5,100.
Edmunds’ biggest donors in the third quarter were James Goodnight, CEO of SAS from Cary; James Lamont, international tour operator at Kalos Tours from Durham; Robert Luddy, president of CaptiveAire from Raleigh; C.D. “Dick” Spangler, a construction entrepreneur from Charlotte; and Republican benefactor Art Pope and his wife Katherine. They all contributed $5,100, except the Pope’s donated $5,000 each.
Morgan raised more money than Edmunds in the third quarter, but Edmunds had him beat in the second quarter and total receipts reporting for all contributions: $341,218.45 to Morgan’s $236,531.48.
Both candidates say the political parties they are associated with have no bearing on their ability to be fair and impartial. They both bring experience from the bench to the bench – Edmunds, who has been a Justice on the court since 2000 and was previously a North Carolina Court of Appeals judge, and Morgan, who has 27 years’ experience in three different judgeships: administrative law, district court and currently superior court.
When asked why residents should vote for them, Edmunds and Morgan point both to their legal and judicial careers.
Edmunds said he’s been on the court already for 16 years and people know what they are going to get with his record.
“[My record] establishes that I know the job and I can do a good job.” – Bob Edmunds
“It establishes that I know the job and I can do a good job,” Edmunds said.
Morgan said he brings an unprecedented skillset to the bench between his three judgeships and his “intimacy with the community.”
“I have been a community leader and a community partner for all my life,” he said, adding that he knows the strengths and weaknesses and issues within North Carolina communities.
Both candidates said they try to remain as nonpartisan as possible and that campaign finance donations do not and would not factor into the position if they were elected.
Morgan explained that he sees campaign donations as an investment in good government, not an investment in him as an individual.
“My influence is not for any sale. There’s no price tag on it.” – Mike Morgan
“My influence is not for any sale,” he said. “There’s no price tag on it.”
Edmunds said he doesn’t think donations generally are big enough to suggest they could be influenced in any way but that he monitors closely where contributions are coming from and who is coming before the court.
“If someone who is coming before me, or before the court more accurately, who has been a substantial donor and who has taken a leadership in this election campaign, then I’ll recuse,” he said.
Edmunds recused himself earlier this year from taking part in the appeal concerning a Supreme Court judicial retention election law. Under that law, which was struck down, sitting Supreme Court justices running for re-election would be subjected to an up-or-down vote rather than face off against a challenger.
The law was criticized by Democrats in the General Assembly as last minute partisan attempt to protect Edmunds’ seat and the Republican majority on the court.
As far as the big bucks coming from outside the campaigns, Edmunds and Morgan said the law allows for it so they have to be OK with it.
Edmunds added that he doesn’t see a problem with outside spending so long as campaigns remain positive and avoid mud-slinging.
Morgan said he thinks the judiciary would be better served with a cap on outside spending, and it would improve the public’s confidence in campaign activities.
“Everybody I work with on the court, all members of the court, no matter what their political affiliation, are all relentlessly careful to put any political thoughts aside once we go into the building and work on the cases,” Edmunds said.
Morgan said all the looming issues are equally important and areas that he has experience in.
Early voting continues until 1 p.m. Saturday and Election Day is Tuesday.