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Big Spending In Supreme Court Race

Less than a decade ago, North Carolina instituted a public financing program for appellate judicial elections that was hailed as a nationwide model. But it’s being tested this year by the state Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Paul Newby, and his challenger, Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin.

Supporters of incumbent Justice Paul Newby hope this 30-second television ad will help people remember Newby’s name when they vote.

Ad:" Paul Newby, he’s a tough old judge respected everywhere. Paul Newby- justice tough but fair."

The ad portrays a hounddog tracking down some small-town criminals as Newby’s picture is displayed at the bottom of the screen. But despite its folksy tone, it hasn’t come cheap. A super PAC has spent more than a million and a half dollars for this ad to be shown in television markets across the state. And Justice Newby says he likes it.

Paul Newby: "I did chuckle when I saw it, my 88-year-old mom saw it and she said she laughed. And you know at the height of this political season, and if folks can look at a quote political unquote ad and chuckle a little bit, then you know it’s positive, it’s certainly not negative in any way."

Newby says a catchy ad like this one will help level the playing field for him. His opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin was named for his grandfather who was a popular U.S. Senator. Newby fears that voters will check the box for Ervin smiply because the name sounds familiar.

Sam Ervin: "They need something other than just name. It should be about qualifications, and hopefully the PACs are encouraging people to look at information beyond just the name."

For his part, Ervin says he’s authored more than 300 opinions on the Court of Appeals and is qualified to run against Newby. But observers worry this race will set a dangerous precedent. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 unleashed a flood of unlimited contributions from companies, and it’s having an impact on this race.

Ervin: "What really concerns me about this race is the effect that it will have on the state’s public financing system."

Billy Corriher is with the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy organization in Washington.

Billy Corriher: "North Carolina is really the only state that has a real robust public financing program for state supreme court candidates."

That program was established in 2002, after another expensive race for the state supreme court between Justice Henry Frye and Justice I. Beverly Lake. The state program allows candidates to receive state funds of about 240 thousand dollars, if they raise about 92 thousand dollars and agree to spending limits. The race is officially non-partisan, but Corriher says many Republican-leaning groups are contributing large amounts of money to several PACs that support Newby.

Corriher: "Some of them support limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, there’s RJ Reynolds, who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, to these efforts and Justice Newby ruled in favor of RJ Reynolds involving some tobacco farmers and the tobacco company."

But Justice Newby, who is a registered Republican, has said emphatically that he cannot be bought. His opponent, Judge Ervin, who’s a Democrat, says he believes that.

Sam Ervin: "I’m perfectly happy to take Justice Newby at his word, but I think you then have this residual sense in the public that we’re basically auctioning off seats on our highest court, the statements being made by those who are buying this indicate that they have a political agenda, and I think that’s a very damaging thing to have happen to the courts."

But Ervin says the bright spot for him is that some polls put him ahead.

 Ervin: "To be honest, they wouldn’t be spending all this money if they weren’t concerned I don’t think. If they felt like this was quote in the bag, I doubt you’d be seeing all this last minute additions to the spending, is it going to be sufficient, don’t know."

There’s also a PAC supporing Ervin with a much smaller amount of money. One thing both Ervin and Newby agree on, they both think the judicial election system probably isn’t the best way of choosing judges for the state supreme court. Instead, they like the idea of retention elections, where judges are subject to a referendum and can be removed from office.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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