RALEIGH, N.C. — The campaign for a North Carolina Supreme Court candidate is now on television accusing outside groups of attempting to “buy a seat” on the state’s highest court through their own TV commercials and billboards.
The ad by Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV, who is challenging Associate Justice Paul Newby for an eight-year term, comes as an independent expenditure group – a so-called “super” PAC – began running its own TV commercial backing Newby this week.
The North Carolina Judicial Coalition already has agreed to spend more than the $355,000 for commercials in the state’s three Piedmont television markets, according to documents filed by stations with the Federal Communications Commission. That amount is more than either campaign will spend because Ervin and Newby are participating in the public financing program for appellate court candidates.
The coalition’s ad supports Newby’s candidacy in a whimsical way – a banjo player singing while bad guys dressed in black get caught by a red pickup truck with a Newby sign.
In contrast, Ervin’s commercial is solemn. It begins with an image of a statute of blind justice getting covered in falling dollar bills.
“The North Carolina Supreme Court should not be for sale,” the narrator says. “But so-called independent groups are spending thousands to buy a seat on the state’s highest court. Why are they spending all this money? What do they expect in return?”
“There’s no place in our courts for partisan politics or ideology of any kind,” Ervin says later in the ad.
The races are officially nonpartisan, but political considerations shroud the Supreme Court, where four or the seven justices are Republican by voter registration. Newby, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is Republican, while Ervin, the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., is a Democrat. An Ervin victory would tip the balance to Democrats before justices are expected to consider redistricting litigation that challenges new maps for congressional and General Assembly districts.
The coalition, which identifies former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer as its leader, declined to comment on the Ervin ad directly. It said in a statement that the group is part of a “bipartisan effort” to support Newby, who has the endorsement of the four former chief justices, two Republicans and two Democrats. But Fetzer also said in July that the race could shift the court’s “philosophical fulcrum.”
“Our goal is to educate North Carolinians about Justice Newby’s experience as a prosecutor and his reputation for being tough but fair in administering our laws,” the release said.
The coalition in its IRS filings this week said it had raised $35,100 through Sept. 29. Two-thirds of the money came from Raleigh businessman and education-reform advocate Bob Luddy. Updated state election reports must be filed later this month.
Ervin said at a debate Thursday at Campbell University law school that he’s worried the outside groups are threatening the independent judiciary and creating politicized, big-money elections. Conservative-leaning Civitas Action also has produced pro-Newby radio ads, while Ervin’s campaign said a group associated with the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association has paid for pro-Newby billboards.
Newby has said he’s a supporter of free speech and hoped the outside groups would simply provide more information to the public about candidates.
“The greatest threat to judicial independence is going in and replacing a justice that’s doing a good job for reasons that are because of name familiarity or other partisan – if you will – reasons,” Newby said Thursday at the debate.
Ervin campaign manager Mike Davis said Friday that Ervin is also concerned about any third-party groups spending money to back his candidacy, too.
Contracts with TV stations show Ervin’s campaign paying more than $176,000 for ads in the Piedmont markets, while Newby’s campaign has agreed to more than $133,000 in ads, the FCC documents show. Some of Newby’s commercial time is being split with other candidates.