Scott Mooneyham: Appellate court seats on ballot
By Scott Mooneyham
Capitol Press Association
RALEIGH — If Republicans control the legislature and governor’s office next year, 2012 could be the last time that North Carolina voters go the polls to select judges without party labels.
State Republicans have made no bones about their distaste about selecting judges on a nonpartisan basis.
Former GOP state chair Tom Fetzer noted earlier this year that many Republicans believe the legislature’s decision in 2004 to drop the Rs and Ds next to judicial candidates’ names came because of Republican successes in judicial elections.
The argument for dropping partisan labels on the election ballot was that the law shouldn’t be partisan.
This year, North Carolina voters will decide four appellate court races without those labels.
Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, who is seeking a second eight-year term, is being challenged by Sam Ervin IV, who currently sits on the Court of Appeals. Newby is a former federal prosecutor and worked as general counsel for Cannon Mills Realty in Kannapolis. Ervin previously served on the State Utilities Commission and worked in private practice in Morganton.
Three state Court of Appeals seats are up for grabs.
Incumbent Judge Cressie Thigpen faces Raleigh lawyer Chris Dillon; incumbent Judge Linda McGee is being challenged by David Robinson, a Raleigh business transaction lawyer; incumbent Judge Wanda Bryant is running against Cabarrus County District Court Judge Marty McGee.
Linda McGee has been on the court since 1995, while Bryant took her seat in 2001. Marty McGee has been a District Court judge since 2000.
Although those partisan labels won’t appear on the ballot, all three of the incumbent Court of Appeals judges are Democrats and all three of their challengers are Republicans.
In the Supreme Court race, Newby is a Republican and Ervin a Democrat.
Those party distinctions may not show up in ads or flyers promoting the candidates either. But a so-called Super PAC headed by Fetzer and funded by some prominent Republican activists has already begun promoting Newby’s candidacy in a humorous TV ad that emphasizes a reputation for being “tough but fair.”
Ervin has responded with his own ad saying that independent groups are spending money to “buy a seat on the state’s highest court.”
Neither ads nor partisan labels may do a lot to educate voters. Even a review of a candidate’s background isn’t going to show how he or she ruled on property rights or criminal appeals or how often political ideology appeared to cloud his or her judgment.
Various groups do produce voter guides, including one from the state Board of Elections that provides background and statements from the candidates.
It’s a busy world, though. Many voters never see these kinds of guides.
That’s why, in recent years, a judicial candidate’s sex and place on the ballot have been the biggest predictors of electoral success. Party labels might change that. It’s not clear that those labels would produce more qualified judges.
Scott Mooneyham writes about state government issues for Capitol Press Association.