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Candidate Spending in North Carolina Supreme Court Election Soars Past $1 Million

One month out from Nov. 4 elections, North Carolina Supreme Court candidates have booked more than $1 million in TV airtime—money they raised from business interests and lawyers who may later appear before them.

October 7, 2014

With less than one month remaining before the Nov. 4 elections, candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court have booked more than $1 million worth of TV airtime for campaign ads in the four contested races. The total covers ads purchased since buying for the general election began, and is based on an analysis of publicly available Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. 

As of 5 p.m. EDT on Oct. 4, five high-court hopefuls had booked more than 2,700 ad slots for the election, with a gross airtime cost of $1,002,013 in connection with four races: Chief Justice Mark Martin vs. Judge Ola M. Lewis, Justice Robin Hudson vs. Judge Eric Levinson, Justice Robert N. Hunter Jr. vs Judge Sam Ervin IV, and Justice Cheri Beasley vs. Michael Robinson, FCC records show. Candidate ads are slated to begin running next week (Oct. 14) and continue through Election Day. 

“Without a public financing system, judges are forced to fundraise from the business interests and lawyers who have a direct stake in the way these judges rule,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “And that’s time and energy judges could be spending deciding cases.”

“The pressure to raise big money and advertise for one’s reelection is unfortunate and inescapable for Supreme Court justices in North Carolina today,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan organization that tracks spending in judicial elections. “Judges and justices follow a calling to serve on the bench so they can defend the law and our system of justice, not stump like politicians. They don’t like it, the public doesn’t like it, and something has to be done to insulate judges from campaign trail pressure.” 

“It won’t be long before these ads starting hitting the airwaves, reminding us all how costly judicial elections have gotten under our current system,” said Melissa Price Kromm, director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections. “Public campaign financing used to protect judicial candidates from some of this. Now, they’re forced to plead to special interests for money so they can afford the TV ad blitz that seems to be mandatory if you want to be competitive.”      

Although some judicial candidates purchased ads on their own behalf, most teamed up to buy TV airtime in tandem. The following is a breakdown of candidates who have purchased TV airtime, according to publicly available FCC records:

  • Mark Martin has contracted for 383 solo ads worth nearly $100,000. He has also purchased airtime jointly with two fellow registered Republican candidates. Martin and Michael Robinson have placed orders for 482 ads worth nearly $104,000 in gross airtime. Martin has also teamed up with Eric Levinson to purchase 334 ad buys costing $176,000
  • Martin Martin’s challenger, Ola Lewis, a registered Republican, has not booked any ads for the general election. Nor has Levinson’s opponent, Robin Hudson, a registered Democrat. 
  • In addition to purchasing contracts jointly with Martin, Robinson will also run 297 ads with airtime costs of $130,000, which were jointly booked with John Bryant, a Republican running for district attorney in Wake County.” Robinson also has booked 81 solo ads for nearly $9,700 in gross airtime. Robinson’s opponent, Cheri Beasley, has no ad contracts on file with the FCC. 
  • Robert N. Hunter Jr. has booked 31 slots worth more than $15,000 in gross airtime. Hunter’s campaign is also on record for contract purchases that total more than $22,000 in gross airtime as part of a bundled purchase by a consulting firm that is also purchasing separate advertising on behalf of  Court of Appeals candidate Lucy Inman, a Democrat.
  • Hunter’s challenger, registered Democrat Sam Ervin IV, has booked 29 slots worth some $7,500 in gross airtime. Ervin also has jointly booked ads with fellow Democrat and Court of Appeals candidate Mark Davis. The Ervin/Davis duo has bought more than 900 slots worth nearly $437,000 in airtime.

Documented spending in North Carolina’s high-court primary and general election is nearly $3.6 million, state and federal filings show. In 2012, costs for the single North Carolina Supreme Court election reached a state record $4.5 million, according to The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011–12:  How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts, a study by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.   

North Carolina holds nonpartisan judicial elections, but party affiliations are routinely discussed and judicial candidates may participate in political functions. The court currently is split, 5–2, in favor of Republicans, with the two Democrats seeking re-election this year. FCC records were identified from the following North Carolina TV stations: WFMY, WRAL, WTVD, WRAZ, WSOC, WCNC, WCTI, WNCN, WBTV, WXII, WNCT, WGHP, WWAY, WSFX and WECT

Contract purchase totals were current as of 5 p.m. EDT on Oct. 4. The FCC public files are continually updated.