N.C.'s public financing system drowned out by outside spending

State judicial races rocked by Citizens United decision

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Thanks to a flood of outside spending, state supreme court races nationwide are awash in tens of millions of dollars’ worth of ads. Just how much is being spent isn’t clear, as many states allow certain types of ads to go unreported.

In North Carolina, one outside group has single-handedly outspent two candidates for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. The North Carolina Judicial Coalition has unleashed a torrent of ads on behalf of conservative Paul Newby, blanketing the state with a $1.3 million ad buy. Tobacco giant RJ Reynolds and the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce gave a combined $264,000 to the ad campaign.

Both Newby and his opponent, liberal Sam Ervin IV, accepted $240,000 from the state as part of North Carolina’s public financing program — established in 2004 to limit spending and rein in the excesses of special interest money in judicial races. 

Unlimited spending by unaffiliated groups has threatened the effectiveness of the program — one of 16 in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The flood of spending was made possible thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. Unlike candidates, outside spending groups can raise and spend unlimited sums from people, corporations and unions.

“Outside entities can spend as much as they want,” said Kim Strach, of North Carolina’s election board. “Candidates certified in our [public financing] program don’t have that ability.”

Michigan

The Michigan Supreme Court election is the nation’s most expensive judicial race this year. The state has seen millions of dollars in “off-the-books” outside spending before an election that could flip the 4-3 conservative edge on the state’s highest court.

“This is madness,” said Rich Robinson, of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who says outside spending has reached a “ridiculous level.”

Parties and PACs have reported less than $680,000 in independent expenditures, but that only tells part of the story.

Political parties alone have purchased $10 million in ads on the race for three seats on so-called “issue” ads, which are not reported to the state. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network has been monitoring the ads.

The watchdog group estimates that 75 percent of the spending in this year’s Supreme Court races falls outside of the state’s reporting system.

Seven candidates are vying for two open seats. Another three are battling to serve the remaining two-year term of a retiring justice.

Candidates have raised a combined $2.7 million.

Democratic candidate Bridget Mary McCormack’s four-minute ad featuring the cast of the hit show “The West Wing” went viral in September. McCormack’s sister was a cast member.

One outside group, the D.C.-based nonprofit Judicial Crisis Network, shot back with $1 million-worth of ads attacking McCormack for volunteering to represent suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. The group does not report its donors.

“Bridget McCormack volunteered to help free a terrorist,” the mother of a slain American soldier says in one ad from the group. “How could you?”

The Michigan Democratic Party ran ads claiming Democrats Connie Kelley, Shelia Johnson and McCormack would “protect children, not criminals.” Another ad from the party claims that Republican incumbents Brian Zahra and Stephen Markman, and challenger Colleen O’Brien “have protected criminals, not kids.”

Alabama

Five Supreme Court seats are open in Alabama, but just one is contested. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) is fighting to win back the job he lost in 2003, when he was removed for refusing to move a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building.

His opponent is Birmingham Judge Bob Vance, who entered the race in August after the Democratic Party disqualified its previous nominee for making inflammatory comments about homosexuals.

Despite his late start, Vance has out-raised his better-known Republican opponent more than two-to-one, pulling in nearly $1 million in campaign contributions since joining the race.

One of his biggest contributors has been Alabama Voice of Teachers for Education. According to state campaign finance records, the teachers association PAC gave Vance $100,000 in October.

Alabama law does not impose campaign contribution limits on individuals or PACs.

Since May, Moore has received roughly $370,000 in campaign contributions, much of it from outside the state. Michael Peroutka, a Maryland attorney who ran for president in 2004 as the nominee of the staunchly conservative Constitution Party, has given Moore $30,000 since September.

Moore’s campaign released ads praising the former chief justice for standing “up to the ACLU and liberal judges to preserve our rights and freedoms. Roy Moore knows our liberty is given by God, not government.”

Ohio

Four candidates are competing for two open seats on Ohio’s Republican-dominated Supreme Court, while the court’s lone Democrat fights to retain her 2010 appointment.

Since July, five of the six candidates have collectively raised nearly $2 million.

Supreme Court candidates in Ohio can accept a maximum of $3,450 from individuals and $6,325 from organizations. Political parties can contribute up to $316,250.

Former appeals court Judge William O’Neill has refused to accept campaign contributions in his challenge to Republican incumbent Justice Robert R. Cupp.

O’Neill filed an ethics complaint concerning $6,300 in donations his opponent and another justice, incumbent Terrence O’Donnell, received from FirstEnergy Corp. The Akron, Ohio-based energy company contributed shortly after the judges began hearing arguments in a case involving Ohio Edison, an electric company owned by FirstEnergy.

Weeks after the justices accepted the gifts, Cupp and O’Donnell joined a majority ruling in favor of the company.

O’Neill produced a Web ad in which he asks two kids to count buckets of money while he decries the thousands of dollars Cupp received from doctors, lawyers and utility companies.

“Money and judges don’t mix,” O’Neill says in the three-minute ad.

In late October, Ohio’s Republican Party released a controversial ad stating that as a judge, “Bill O’Neill expressed sympathy for rapists.”

The 15-second ad concerns an appellate court opinion O’Neill wrote in 2000 in which the he overturned a rape conviction.

Cupp joined state Democrats and the Ohio State Bar Association in demanding that the Republican Party pull the ad. But GOP officials have refused to do so.

West Virginia

The race for two open Supreme Court seats in West Virginia features four candidates, one of whom has produced a quirky ad in which he shows viewers the inside of his closet to confirm that there are no skeletons inside.

Incumbent Justice Robin Jean Davis, a Democrat, faces Republican Alan Loughry while Democrat Letitia Chafin squares off against John Yoder, a Republican.

Outside spending has been absent from this Supreme Court election, but the four candidates have spent a combined $1.8 million during the general election campaign.

Loughry’s campaign produced three ads – two of which prominently feature the candidate’s six-year-old son, aptly named Justice.

In one ad, the Republican gives viewers a tour of his house, as he repeatedly notes that his last name is pronounced “LAW-FREE.” At one point, Loughry opens his closet and says, “See? No skeletons.”

Loughry, who has spent nearly $425,000, was the only candidate who intended to run a publicly financed campaign this election season. But his plans were thwarted when the state Supreme Court ruled in September to deny Loughry’s campaign matching state funds under a pilot program.

Retention elections

In Iowa, a conservative outside spending group hopes to oust a justice who supports same-sex marriage. In Florida, justices face the wrath of a pro-business group and a physician who object to President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.

Eighteen states, including Iowa and Florida, require their appointed Supreme Court justices to periodically face voters in what are known as “merit retention elections.”

Voters are asked whether a judge should remain on the bench. If a majority says no, the governor appoints new justices from a list of names submitted by a nonpartisan nominating commission.

Read more on these races here.