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Mark MartinThe Charlotte Observer has reprinted the remarks that new state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin made at his swearing-in ceremony on Monday.

Lots of it was fairly standard stuff about improving efficiency and civics education, but at least two sections amount to direct repudiations of the state’s conservative political leaders on critically important topics — courts funding and transparency.

According to Martin, current funding for and transparency in the state judiciary are both inadequate. And on these points — if he’s really serious, that is — he’s dead on.

As Policy Watch reporter Sharon McCloskey has reported repeatedly, funding for the state courts system has fallen to crisis levels under the current General Assembly and Governor and has reached the point at which citizens are simply being denied access to justice because the courts can’t afford basic things.

As McCloskey has also reported, the same can be said for the issue of transparency — most notably and egregiously in the enactment of the new “star chamber” law that allows the Supreme Court members to consider complaints against their own members (and mete out discipline) in complete secrecy.

Martin’s comments were fairly general  in nature, but let’s fervently hope that he was just being, ahem, judicious with his language, really means what he said and that he’s got the guts to talk back to his fellow Republicans on these critically important issues in the coming weeks.

 

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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.