- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Two recent targets of hard-knuckled ads in their run for North Carolina Supreme Court seats said Wednesday they’re worried big outside money is harming the public’s perception of the courts and discouraging potential future candidates.

Current Associate Justice Robin Hudson and Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV were among seven people who are running for four seats on the state’s highest court and spoke at an evening candidate forum. Their rivals in the November election were empathetic to their concerns, but doubted immediate change would occur.

“It is unrealistic to expect that in the current environment there will not be outside dollars,” said Eric Levinson, a Superior Court judge challenging Hudson in November, but “my prayer is that they will be positive, if they’re any that run in the fall.”

A pair of candidates for three of the seats took questions from a moderator and answered to about 75 attorneys. Newly appointed Chief Justice Mark Martin, who is seeking an eight-year term in the post in November, spoke alone to the group. His challenger, Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis, withdrew shortly before the event, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict, according to the Federalist Society, the sponsor.

Hudson was the subject of a television ad leading up to her May primary that cited her dissenting opinion in a case involving the satellite monitoring of convicted child molesters. The group called Justice for All NC spent $900,000 related to the ad, nearly all of it coming from the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, according to filings at the State Board of Elections.

Hudson said most people believe the ads were “really outrageous, they were false and they were really scurrilous,” Hudson told the crowd of about 75 attorneys. She said the implication that a group wants to replace someone with another candidate who “might be more likely to protect a particular agenda is just not consistent with the way our system is supposed to work.”

While appeals court races are officially nonpartisan, political parties still closely follow them and often make endorsements. Hudson and Levinson advanced to the general election. Hudson is a registered Democrat. Levinson is a Republican. Both said they acted with impartiality from the bench, with no political agenda.

Justice for All NC ran another ad in the days leading up to the 2012 general election that criticized Ervin, then running against Associate Justice Paul Newby. Newby won the race. Ervin is trying again, this time against Associate Justice Bob Hunter of Morehead City. A court of Appeals judge for almost six years, Hunter was appointed earlier this month by Gov. Pat McCrory to fill for the rest of the year the seat vacated because Martin was elevated to chief justice on the mandatory retirement of Chief Justice Sarah Parker.

With his 2012 experience and other developments, Ervin has made worries about outside influence a key part of his campaign. Hunter downplayed the problem as it related specifically to their race, saying it’s a problem in all kinds of campaigns, not just the courts, citing North Carolina’s current U.S. Senate race.

“I don’t think the election of Judge Ervin or Justice Hunter in this race is going to affect that problem one bit,” Hunter said, later adding that Ervin was creating “a made-up issue to raise funds” and encourage donations to his campaign. The General Assembly last year eliminated a voluntary public financing program for appellate court candidates.

Ervin, the grandson of famed Watergate committee leader U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., disagreed it was a “made-up issue.”

“Anyone that looked at the 2012 elections and saw the types of advertising cannot help but be concerned about that process,” he said.

The forum also included questions for Associate Justice Cheri Beasley and her challenger, Winston-Salem attorney Mike Robinson.


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