State NAACP questions state judge’s partisanship

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N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby prevailed in a close race to retain his seat on election night earlier this month — and critics are already raising concerns about his ability to rule impartially.

The N.C. chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a motion Wednesday requesting that Newby recuse himself from the pending case concerning N.C. redistricting.

The NAACP is arguing that Republicans drew black voters into fewer districts to limit their influence, and that Newby will be partisan since his campaign was funded by right-leaning groups.

In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, political analysts are questioning the influence that outside interest groups can wield in elections — especially in low-profile races like the ones for seats on N.C.’s highest court.

The Citizens United decision barred the government from regulating campaign expenditures from outside organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity.

The race between Newby and N.C. Court of Appeals Justice Sam Ervin IV was heavily funded by outside groups.

Newby’s campaign and independent groups spent about $1.35 million in total, while Ervin’s campaign spent almost $640,000.

“It should raise questions in the minds of normal citizens about whether or not a judge can be bought,” said Isaac Unah, a UNC political science professor.

Unah said Americans for Prosperity, a right-leaning organization funded by the Koch brothers, donated a significant sum to Newby’s campaign — exactly $225,000.

The group, he said, likely decided that supporting Newby would increase the chances of favorable rulings, such as maintaining Republican-drawn districts.

But Newby has said in interviews that partisanship does not pervade the court’s rulings and that party affiliation does not directly correlate with judicial philosophy.

Unah said that since the Citizens United decision, state and national elections have been awash with money.

At the national level, the effects of the ruling are less apparent because the two main presidential candidates already had so much money, Unah said.

But voters naturally know less about state and local candidates and are more easily persuaded by campaign ads, said Steven Greene, N.C. State University political science professor.

“When you have a high-information election, money becomes not so important — have a low-information election and put a million dollars into it, and it can make a world of difference,” Greene said.

Greene said the amount of money that organizations are pumping into judicial elections brings into question the validity of court races.

“The money going to judges is disturbing. None of it is a good thing, but then you have the issue of free speech,” he said.

Duke University law professor Paul Carrington said there is a possibility for campaign finance reform, but Congress must work in tandem with the Supreme Court.

For now, critics of Newby’s campaign will have to wait for the outcome of the filed motion.

“(Newby) ought to be asked to recuse himself (from the redistricting case), but I don’t think he will,” Carrington said.

Contact the desk editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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