By Colleen Sharp.
When North Carolinians go to the polls on November 4, many voters may not recognize the names they see on their ballot. The names on the Supreme Court section of the ballot may be some of the most unfamiliar to voters. The North Carolina Supreme Court hears cases regarding the constitutionality of North Carolina law and is the highest court of appeal in North Carolina. The seven positions for associate justice and chief justice are elected for eight year terms, but only four of the seats are contested in this year. All of the elections for these seats are statewide and are supposed to be nonpartisan.
However, some have accused candidates in the race for Chief Justice of taking partisan positions. Governor McCrory named Justice Mark Martin to the position of Chief Justice after his predecessor stepped down. Justice Martin now seeks to defend his seat from a challenge by Judge Ola Lewis. Both candidates are registered Republicans, but Lewis claims that the party has been unfairly working against her campaign. She has said that the over-politicization of court races led her to run. Lewis stresses the fact that the juvenile punishment system needs to become more efficient in order to ensure that it is providing fair trials. She has also mentioned that she is in favor of increased judicial discretion in sentencing, indicating that she would support activist court decisions that decided questions of government policy.
Martin stresses that he, unlike Lewis, has experience on the Supreme Court. If he were re-elected, Martin would likely spend a great deal of his time during the next term organizing the entire judicial branch with his seven-year plan, which includes increasing court funding from the state, using an e-filing system for cases, ensuring that adequate mental health resources are provided, and improving civic education in North Carolina. Martin and Lewis have different goals for the court despite having the same political affiliation.
The second Supreme Court race is also one of the most hotly contested races this election cycle. It is between Associate Justice Robin Hudson and lawyer Eric Levinson. Hudson is a registered Democrat who accuses Levinson’s supporters of using $1 million in“dark money”–unregulated money that comes from unspecified donors in the absence of campaign finance laws–to advertise against her candidacy. One of her stated goals is to protect individual rights in her decisions. She has said that she wants to look after individuals, “Not big companies. Not big government.” Her emphasis on the intent behind the law in her decisions indicates that her future rulings will be dependent on not only the text of the law, but also the nebulous intent of the lawmakers, allowing increased judicial discretion during interpretation.
Levinson, a registered Republican, was the attache to Iraq for the US Department of Justice. He takes a scholarly approach, claiming that justices should be “students of the law.” In other words, they should constantly study the policy and effects of laws. Levinson would likely look at the effects of his rulings on the individual’s access to justice in addition to simply evaluating the constitutionality of a case. He has claimed that the guarantees of equal protection under the law and due process of law are no longer fulfilled in practice, and has said that this a key problem that needs to be solved by the court.
The third race is between Associate Justice Cheri Beasley and Mike Robinson. Beasley seeks election after having been appointed during the last term. She has claimed that the key purpose of the court is to determine what the law is and to provide precedent to the lower courts, indicating that she supports the court’s use of a quasi-legislative power to decide exactly what a law means. Her ability to avoid prejudging cases has been drawn into question after she was quoted saying that the state’s new voter ID law that is being contested in federal courts is confusing by design. However, Beasley has since claimed that she was misquoted and would not recuse herself from this case if it came before the court.
Robinson, on the other hand, has been accused of being too heavily pro-business and therefore biased. He stresses the need for business knowledge in the Supreme Court, claiming that “we need people on the courts who have experience representing businesses and business-men and -women.” Despite having had no previous experience serving as a judge or justice, Robinson says that he has used the skills of deliberation and civil debate in his experience in the private sector, so his lack of experience would not deter him from making the best decisions.
The race for the last seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court is between Judge Sam Ervin IV and Justice Robert Hunter. Both of the candidates emphasize fairness, but they have different definitions of what it means to be fair. Justice Hunter focuses on the consequences of rulings, claiming that compassion is important in the judicial process even if it is not in the law itself. He also claims that the court should take care that the effects of a ruling are not negative, indicating that he may consider the constitutionality of a law to be dependent on a personal idea of what is right. Ervin, on the other hand, argues that fairness needs to be determined by the facts and the law, including precedent. He may be described as a strict constructionist because he claims that the primary determinant of what a law means should be the exact wording in the law itself. Both candidates place importance on how similar they are—each has served on the NC Court of Appeals for a long time–but they differ in their views on how to properly interpret the laws.
These candidates for North Carolina Supreme Court will have a lasting effect on how the court interprets the law for the next eight years. After the extremely politicized legislation of the General Assembly’s 2013 and 2014 terms, many of the cases before the court will be very political. For example, the docket for the 2014 term includes a case contesting Duke Energy’s power after its controversial merger with Progress Energy, a merger that was sanctioned by the North Carolina government. As North Carolina politics is increasingly polarized, its Supreme Court will be increasingly influential in controlling who has power in the state. The winners of this race will have a lasting impact on the workings of North Carolina politics during their eight-year terms. It is important that voters understand the choices they are making in this election.