MOREHEAD CITY — Candidates for the upcoming statewide judicial seats urged voters to do research on nonpartisan races before hitting the polls this year and cast informed ballots in the wake of state changes that, they say, threaten the impartial nature of North Carolina’s court system.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Cheri Beasley, Judge Sam Ervin and Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis spoke with Carteret Democrats Saturday evening at the Carteret County Democratic Party’s first Jefferson Jackson Dinner, held at Sanitary Restaurant.
“We are at a crossroads in this state in terms of whether our judicial system remains independent,” said Judge Ervin, whose name will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot for the seat of Supreme Court Associate Justice Mark Martin, who is running for Chief Justice with the retirement of Justice Sarah Parker.
Judicial elections in North Carolina have long used separate campaigns from the partisan executive and legislative races, they said That’s allowed them to function impartially and hold the citizenry, as well as the executive and legislative state branches accountable for wrongdoing under the law.
But that position is threatened by funding regulations altered by the GOP-supermajority in the General Assembly, Judge Ervin said.
Previously those running in judicial races used public financing, which established a limited fund for candidates, largely through state-collected annual attorney fees, allowing the judicial branch to function away from big-cash political agendas and remaining “voter owned.”
As of Jan. 1, however, private donors can contribute to the campaign funds of judicial candidates, upping the stakes in select races and outspending to achieve the desired wins.
“A judge takes the law as it is and tries to make sure that it is fairly and impartially applied for the benefit of all citizens,” said Judge Ervin. “Judges don’t need and shouldn’t have a political or ideological agenda.”
Beyond crippling opposing candidates, the change calls into question the impartiality of judges who win on the backs of out-of-state entities and other big spenders.
“(Democrats) need to stand up for what they’ve always stood up for, which is a judiciary that decides cases without worrying about what people’s politics are, without having an agenda, without being beholden to anyone who has an agenda,” said Judge Ervin.
In 2014, four of seven N.C. Supreme Court seats appear on the ballot and private elections spending could win a majority in the nonpartisan branch.
“If you want people there who will follow the rule of law without any concern about partisan agenda, you’ve got to make sure that you keep us there,” said Justice Beasley, who will run against Winston-Salem native Mike Robinson for re-election to her chair in November.
Changes to the judicial financing were stashed in the controversial House Bill 589, which transformed elections regulations across the state, most notably adding voter identification at the polls, a requirement currently being challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“You’ve heard a lot about voter I.D. and a lot of folks are confused about that and the confusion is by design,” said Justice Beasley. “If you’re going to change (voter laws) and you’re doing it for the right reason, make sure everyone is aware of the changes. Put everyone on equal footing.”
The judges also asked voters to be diligent at the polls, being sure to vote in nonpartisan races, which can be overlooked or left blank by voters unfamiliar with the candidates.
“The message is: please don’t forget the judges,” said Judge Davis, who faces a challenge for re-election to his court of appeals seat.
Educating voters on judicial candidates proves difficult during election season, he said, because a good candidate cannot talk about his or her positions on buzzword issues like traditional candidates.
“It’s a good thing, because you don’t elect judges on how they feel about issues,” said Judge Davis. “You elect them to be fair and impartial and apply the law as it’s written, not as they might wish it might be.”
The News-Times has requested candidate statements from all judicial candidates appearing on the 2014 ballots and will run profiles prior to Election Day.
“I am not beholden to the people who’ve enacted (legislative changes,)” said Judge Ervin. “If they’re unconstitutional, I vote to strike them down, if they’re constitutional I vote to uphold them, even if I don’t like them.”
As for the financing changes, the three judges said they would seek financing for the 2014 elections from nonpartisan, nonpolitical avenues.
“When we’re making decisions about people’s everyday lives, there’s one thing we all know for sure: justice ought not be for sale,” said Justice Beasley.
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