The state’s three Supreme Court candidates answered several questions Tuesday night in a debate fit for a legal crowd.
It was clear the debate was meant to educate voters about the judicial system, but the questions were ripe with legal jargon and philosophy that would likely send a layperson straight to Google. The debate, which was held at the Raleigh office of the law firm Parker Poe and hosted by the conservative Federalist Society, was attended by many local judges (including Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin) and lawyers.
Each of the Supreme Court candidates — Republican incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson, Republican lawyer Chris Anglin and Democratic civil rights attorney Anita Earls — were permitted to make one-minute opening statements about their campaigns for office. Donna Martinez, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the conservative John Locke Foundation, moderated the hour-long debate.
The one question that everyone agreed on was one about whether North Carolina’s Supreme Court needed a swing vote — which has been discussed recently in the context of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I think that we’re in a different situation in our state courts because it’s really the voters who get to decide, and so I sort of feel like it really doesn’t matter what I think,” Earls answered. “What matters is that the voters are informed of who’s running and what they stand for and what their background and experience is, and then let the voters decide who they would like to see serving them.”
The question was directed at Earls, but each candidate answered each question and all expressed similar sentiments.
Anglin, who has been under fire with the Republican Party for changing his party affiliation from Democratic before he filed for office, was asked about his view of stare decisis — which is a legal principle regarding respect for established opinions.
“What rule would guide your decision on when to overrule and establish precedent?” Martinez asked him.
Anglin said he was a firm believer in the principle for consistency of decisions, but added that there were rare instances when an opinion should be overturned, often times involving social issues.
Earls stated that the principle was a major part of judicial tradition and an important part of equal access to justice.
“You can’t treat everyone the same if you’re changing the law,” she said.
Similarly, Jackson said stare decisis provides predictability and certainty for lawyers and their clients and stability for the law. She added that there would have to be strong, compelling evidence that something should be overturned before consideration of such a step.
Candidates fielded questions too about their judicial philosophy, faith in the judicial system, the state constitution and the debate surrounding judicial activism vs. restraint.
“Is there such a thing as a Republican judge or a Democrat judge, and if there is, what’s the difference and what does the party affiliation signal to the voter?” Martinez asked.
Jackson said she thinks sometimes party labels with respect to sitting judges are overblown, but it does provide some additional information for the voters. Sitting judges, however, take seriously their oath to constitutional laws and leave politics behind, she continued.
“What in the world is there that’s partisan about awarding child custody or dealing with a termination of parental rights hearing, criminal law, whether the defendant is innocent or guilty?” she said. “We don’t sit there and say to the attorneys who practice in front of us, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?'”
Earls said she does not believe there are Republican or Democratic judges once they are on the bench.
“You are all there to do the same job, which is to serve all of the people of the state and put your best effort involved in applying the law equally to the facts and cases that come before you,” she added.
She pointed out that judges can’t make policy and they’re very careful not to say how they might rule in any particular case, so voters only have their record.
Anglin, who has been outspoken about his opposition to partisan judicial elections, renewed his stance and said party affiliation doesn’t convey much to the voter with respect to how a judge will do their job on the bench.
He added that party labels reflect more on how a voter will perceive a judge’s beliefs than their actual beliefs.
“I think that’s unfortunate and will lead to people making decisions generally based on their political affiliation,” he said.
One woman from the crowd asked at the end of the debate if the candidates would be willing to take questions from the audience, but they were not. She made a statement anyway, noting her disappointment about how they didn’t acknowledge bias in the court. She recommended they all watch the movie “13th,” a study of racial inequality in the U.S.
“Not to listen and not to look is a detriment to our country and our democracy,” she said.
Court of Appeals candidates also made an appearance at the event — seven of eight of them were there (Martinez said Michael Monaco did not respond to an invitation to attend). They each made a three-minute statement about their campaign. Below is a a very brief highlight of what each of them said:
The Arrowood seat:
Andrew Heath, Republican candidate: “I have that base of knowledge of a trial court judge.”
John Arrowood, Democratic incumbent: “There are about 200 cases out there that you can judge what kind of a job I am doing.”
The Calabria seat:
Jefferson Griffin, Republican candidate: “We’re all trying to be advocates coming out of school, but not everyone’s cut out to be a judge.”
Toby Hampson, Democratic candidate: “I think I have the right experience to focus on the court — real hands-on experience.”
Sandra Alice Ray, Republican candidate (her daughter, Meredith Crimer, spoke on her behalf because she was held up in Wilmington): “I know she’s a fair and honest person.”
The Elmore seat:
Chuck Kitchen, Republican candidate: “I have the most experience of anyone running in my race; I have both trial experience and appellate experience.”
Allegra Collins, Democratic candidate: “Appellate law really is my job, it’s my hobby and it really is my passion.”