Supreme Court contender Sam Ervin comes from family with political ties
SALISBURY - If Sam J. Ervin is elected to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, he could tip the balance of the court, political analysts say, which now leans conservative 4-3.
But Ervin, an N.C. Court of Appeals Judge, says he doesn't have a political agenda. As outside money pours in for his opponent, incumbent Justice Paul Newby, Ervin counters that what could be at stake is the judicial election process itself.
Ervin was first elected to the appeals court in 2008 and has helped write about 325 opinions.
Previously, he practiced law in his hometown of Morganton from 1981 until 1999. From 1999 until 2008, he served on the North Carolina Utilities Commission, a government agency that regulates the state's public utilities.
"I have a demonstrated record of being fair and impartial," he said. "Given my 13-and-a-half years doing judicial and quasi-judicial work, I think that's a record the public could reasonably have confidence in."
Ervin said work with the Utilities Commission was often similar to what he now does as a judge. During its quasi-judicial hearings, witnesses testify, evidence is presented and the commission makes a ruling based on the facts and the law.
"It's a court, basically, in everything but name," he said. "It deals with a lot of very complicated litigation."
Ervin attended Burke County public schools and graduated from Davidson College in 1978. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1981, and he went into private practice.
He lives in his hometown of Morganton with his wife, Mary Temple Ervin. He has two children and two-step-children.
Ervin is the son of federal Judge Sam Ervin III and the grandson of U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate Committee.
Newby, his opponent, has said Erwin goes by "Jimmy" and is running under a name he never uses, to gain advantage.
"That's not true," Ervin said. "My family has called me Jimmy forever. But if you look at the law firm stationary from the time I got licensed in 1981, it says Sam J. Ervin IV."
That's also the name that has appeared on his rulings at the Utilities Commission and on the N.C. Court of Appeals, he said.
Ervin said he is definitely a different person than his father and his grandfather, but he's proud of their accomplishments and learned a lot from them.
They're part of who he is.
Ervin said his granddad always emphasized that everybody was equal under the law. His dad taught him never to forget the people behind the case.
"He told me, 'What it may look like to a judge is a stack of paper on desk, but behind that stack of paper is somebody that something happened to, and whatever you do is going to affect their life. You need to remember that,'" Ervin said.
Like most judicial candidates in the state, both Ervin and Newby are participating in the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, which allows them to receive up to $240,100 each in public financing.
But recent changes in campaign finance law allow political action committees, or PACs, to raise unlimited sums of money to give indirect support to candidates.
Now, a "super PAC" called the N.C. Judicial Coalition has agreed to spend $355,000 on commercials in the state's three Piedmont markets, the Associated Press reports. It recently began running an advertisement for Newby.
Civitas Action, a nonprofit group based in Raleigh, has spent at least $72,000 supporting Newby with radio ads, according to state finance records.
Ervin said he believes the public financing system works well for judicial races. Part of the reason is that it lets people run who, like him, might not otherwise have the money to mount a successful campaign.
But candidates could rely on more private fundraising, shedding the $330,000 limit that comes with public money, if they have to compete against large-scale funding from outside groups.
"If we get into a system where a candidate who opts to go into public financing can't compete, then who's going to do it in the future?" Ervin said.
He also said he's concerned about how such large sums of money could affect judicial independence, especially when judges are considering decisions that are "legally correct but politically controversial."
"No matter how fair and impartial somebody may actually be, the public perception is if somebody gives you money, you're beholden to them," he said.
Judges' rulings should not be influenced by their financial supporters or political beliefs, Erwin said.The role of appellate court judges is simply to decide whether a lower court ruled correctly according to the law and case history, he said. It is not their role to give their personal opinion of whether laws are good or bad, he said, or even how they would have decided the original case."Your job really is to be fair, to be impartial, not to have some kind or political or ideological agenda," Ervin said. "To the extent that a judge has that kind of agenda, I think that's a problem."
Erwin says he has avoided labeling himself, because he's not running or basing his decisions on a political platform.
Meanwhile, Newby's supporters have campaigned for him as a "conservative justice," and he has received the backing of the state Republican Party.
But Newby says he follows the law without a political agenda, and he has support from judges and elected officials on both sides of the aisle.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.