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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

North Carolina earned an “F” for judicial financial disclosure, according to a report released this morning by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center looked at three years of financial records submitted by state supreme court justices and evaluated the enforcement of disclosure rules, making these findings:

  • Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received a failing grade in a Center evaluation of disclosure requirements for supreme court judges.
  • Judges in three states — Montana, Utah and Idaho — aren’t required to file any disclosure reports at all.
  • Despite the poor disclosure rules, the Center’s investigation found 35 examples of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads as well as other entanglements.
  • In 14 instances over the past three years justices participated in cases where they or their spouses owned stock in companies involved in the litigation.
  • Of the 273 supreme court justices required to disclose stock holdings, 107 reported owning stock.
  • Twelve states rely on self-policing disciplinary bodies — made up of high-court justices themselves — to enforce the courts’ ethical rules.

North Carolina fared relatively well among the states in terms of the disclosure required of supreme court justices (ranked 25th), but less so for judicial discipline, thanks to the “star chamber” bill passed by the General Assembly this summer which, as first reported by Policy Watch in July, allows the justices to discipline themselves in secret.

The report also highlighted instances in which Justices Paul Newby and Robert Edmunds participated in cases despite having financial interests in programs or companies before the court.

In one instance, Newby participated in cases concerning payments from the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, of which he was a beneficiary by virtue of a farm he owns.

In another, Justice Edmunds participated in a case decided in favor of Wells Fargo, despite owning stock in the company.

The Center’s findings come at a time when the transparency and impartiality of the state’s justices, Newby in particular, have been questioned in connection with the pending redistricting lawsuit.  Plaintiffs there had asked Justice Newby to step out of the case, given that his 2012 reelection campaign had received more than a million dollars in contributions from the Republican State Leadership Committee — one of the principal architects of the redistricting plan at issue.   That request was denied without any explanation from the court.

Read the full N.C. report here.

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.

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.

The Center for American Progress released its list of million-dollar judges — those whose 2012 election campaigns raked in that amount or more, on their own or with the help of independent spending.  Sharing the spotlight on that list is our own Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby:

North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby was re-elected with the help of more than $2.5 million in independent spending. The state’s public financing program—long a model for states seeking to keep money out of judicial races—was overwhelmed by money from interest groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a group affiliated with the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. North Carolina tobacco companies also chipped in hundreds of thousands of dollars after they benefited from a 2009 ruling, authored by Newby, in a dispute with tobacco farmers.

The largest donation, by far, was the more than $1 million from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that helped the state’s Republican legislature draft its recent redistricting maps. Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit alleging that the map disenfranchises minority voters, and the case is currently before the state supreme court. This money was instrumental in keeping a 4-3 conservative majority on the bench. North Carolina’s ethics rules say a judge should not hear a case if his or her “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” but Justice Newby will hear the redistricting case despite the fact that he was re-elected thanks to millions of dollars from Republican groups that have a stake in the outcome.