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To kick off your Monday, here’s a cautionary tale from Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick about what’s happening in Tennessee judicial elections — a tale that’s unfortunately all too familiar here in North Carolina.

In a reprise of what happened in that state back in 2009, three Democratically-appointed Supreme Court  justices who are up for a retention election (essentially a vote of confidence) are under attack from well-heeled Republicans who, having gained control of the legislature and the governor’s seat there, want to complete their trifecta by ruling the high court as well.

Sound familiar?  (See Robin Hudson).

In an interesting twist, though, the state bar association has launched a counterattack, raising nearly $600,000 in bipartisan support of the justices.

While admirable, that effort plays right into the quandary of lawyers giving money to judges before whom they appear and feeds an unfortunate spending spiral.

Says Lithwick:

And that’s the real problem. When judicial races turn into spending races, what suffers most is not Democrats or Republicans, but judicial independence and integrity. As has been exhaustively chronicled by one nonpartisan study after another, judges don’t want to be dialing for dollars from the attorneys who litigate before them, and litigants don’t want to appear before judges who dial for dollars. All of the data shows that the effect is a decline in confidence in the independence of the judiciary and a spending arms race that spirals ever more out of control. That’s the paradox of course: Cynically preying on an unspecified public fear of out-of control judges will ultimate result in actual jurists who are actually compromised, either by taking money they shouldn’t be taking, or making promises and pledges they are in no position to make. In either case, imaginary judicial shadiness  becomes a lot more real.

 

As we sift through the aftermath of this week’s primary elections, folks should check out two new “must reads” from the state’s editorial pages about the bottom-of-the-barrel, big-money attack ads that infected the race for a state Supreme Court seat.

In this essay published in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer, Melissa Price Kromm of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections and Bert Brandenburg of the group Justice at Stake in Washington, D.C had this to say:

“After years of avoiding the explosion in judicial election spending nationwide, North Carolina is quickly earning an unwelcome reputation. In the 2011-2012 judicial election cycle, more than $3.5 million was spent for just one state Supreme Court seat; more than $2.8 million of that came from outside groups.

The soaring independent spending in North Carolina is in keeping with national trends since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited independent spending on elections

These trends pose a disturbing threat to our courts – that justice might be for sale. Read More

In case you missed it over the weekend, the Charlotte Observer featured an excellent (if sobering) editorial about how the end of public financing and the massive of influx of dark money is transforming the North Carolina Supreme Court into an institution that’s literally for sale to the highest bidder.

“North Carolinians got their first glimpse of big-money Supreme Court races in 2012. Outside groups funneled about $2.3 million into the state to help incumbent Paul Newby, the conservative in the nonpartisan race. That money swamped the $300,000 or so in outside money aimed at helping opponent Sam Ervin IV.

That was the most outside money of any race in the state other than governor. Newby, buoyed by corny banjo-playing TV actors, won 52 percent to 48 percent. That let conservatives maintain a 4-3 majority on the bench.

Special interests could have even more influence this year thanks to at least three changes in the law: Read More

Supreme CourtA new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics finds that North Carolina’s recently repealed system of providing public financing for judicial campaigns had been doing what it was designed to do — namely, to  reduce the influence of special interest money and the need for candidates to be rich (or beg money from others who are). Here’s the overview:

“On August 12, 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a controversial voter identification bill into law. The bill included a measure repealing the North Carolina Public Campaign Fund, a system of publicly financing candidates for election to the state’s supreme and appellate courts.

To determine what impact the repeal of the Fund may have on financing future judicial elections in the Tar Heel State, Read More

Andrew Cohen follows up the report released yesterday by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice on outside money in judicial elections — particularly Supreme Court elections — asking this question: What’s the impact?

Justice at Stake’s Bert Brandenburg had this answer:

Here’s what we can measure: the impression that justice is for sale. Our polling has shown that more than 80 percent of voters believe campaign cash has an impact on judicial decision making. And the effects of that perception are pervasive. They may be subtle, but the harm is there. It might be felt in who decides to pursue or abandon legal redress at all, whether a voter decides to participate in a judicial election at all, whether sincere public servants decide to seek elevation to the bench or turn away from it, or whether businesses choose to bring jobs and industry to a community or go elsewhere.