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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

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Supreme CourtA new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics finds that North Carolina’s recently repealed system of providing public financing for judicial campaigns had been doing what it was designed to do — namely, to  reduce the influence of special interest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

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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.

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Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice released an important new report today entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections,” highlighting North Carolina as one of the big spenders nationwide — and first in spending by outside interest groups — during the 2011-2012 Supreme Court election cycle.

In North Carolina, a 4-3 conservative majority was on the line in 2012 when incumbent Justice Paul Newby faced off against Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV. Estimated spending surpassed $4.4 million, shattering state records for judicial elections.

According to the report, North Carolina ranked fourth in overall spending for 2011-12 Supreme Court races nationwide, but first for independent expenditures by interest groups, at $3,841,998.

Independent spending by interest groups (as compared to political parties) was particularly significant in 2011–12.

This trend is part of the long shadow cast by Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited corporate and union independent expenditures in federal elections and in the 24 states that restricted such spending at the time of the ruling.

In North Carolina, for example, the Super PAC North Carolina Judicial Coalition, backed by conservative and business interests, spent nearly $2.9 million in its efforts to reelect incumbent Justice Paul Newby, making it the biggest spender in the state. (The report ranks the Judicial Coalition as fourth in the country in television advertisement spending).

North Carolina’s Supreme Court race was also targeted by the conservative Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit social welfare group linked to the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which spent $250,000 in support of Justice Newby—AFP’s largest judicial advocacy effort ever.

What makes this super-PAC spending worse is the difficulty the public has in identifying just who donors to the PAC, and ultimately to the candidate the PAC supports, are:

Many of the top-spending special interest groups in 2011–12 shrouded their agendas and donor lists in secrecy. Names like the . . . “North Carolina Judicial Coalition” leave ordinary citizens hard-pressed to identify spenders’ ideological or political agendas.

Top donors to the North Carolina Judicial Coalition, which was a major spender for television advertising in support of Justice Paul Newby, included Justice for All NC, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, the North Carolina Republican Party, General Parts International, Inc., the Next Century Fund, and a variety of individuals. The Center for Public Integrity reports that one of these groups, Justice for All NC, received most of its money from the Republican State Leadership Committee, which in turn counted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform as its single biggest donor in 2012.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which played a key role in the state’s 2010 redistricting process, is now front and center in the redistricting case pending before Justice Newby and his colleagues on the Supreme Court. Challengers to the plan have asked Newby to recuse himself from the case.

Read the full report here.

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The following was posted this morning on “Taking Note” the editorial page blog at the New York Times:

“The Decline of North Carolina, Continued 

An editorial last week lamented North Carolina’s abandonment of progressive policies in the seven months since Republicans took control of both the executive and legislative branches in the Tar Heel State for the first time since reconstruction.

The piece cited backward slides in areas such as public education, tax fairness, voting, abortion rights and the mean-spirited slashing of federal unemployment benefits for roughly 70,000 residents.

To that depressing list, I would add one more item: the destruction of North Carolina’s public financing system for judicial elections. Read More