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TV Ad Buys Near Three-Quarters of a Million Dollars in NC Supreme Court Races

With the Election Day fast approaching, candidates have spent nearly $710,000 on TV ad buys in four contested North Carolina Supreme Court races -- ads that will likely attempt to politicize candidates' previous rulings.

September 24, 2014

New York – With the November 4th elections less than six weeks away, public records available to date show that television advertising buys worth nearly $710,000 have already been booked in four contested races for the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Documented spending in North Carolina’s nonpartisan high-court primary and general election has reached almost $3.3 million, state and federal filings show. The 2012 state high-court race cost $4.5 million, a state record.

Contracts indicate that candidate ads are slated to begin running on September 29 and will continue through Election Day. As of 5 p.m. EDT on Sept. 22, nearly 1,800 ads had been booked for the state’s high court general election contests.

“The flood of spending in state supreme court races has become an unfortunate trend in recent years,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “When judges have to curry favor with deep-pocketed special interest groups, it puts our entire system of justice at risk.”

“Since big-money ad campaigns usually leave little room for the truth, they threaten to politicize the courts and confirm voters’ fears that justice is for sale,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.

The 2014 Supreme Court election is the first since the 2013 repeal of North Carolina’s public financing system for judicial races. As a result, candidates have had to rely more on contributions from individuals and interest groups to mount their campaigns. North Carolina also lacks clear standards for when judges must step aside from cases in the face of campaign spending by litigants or lawyers appearing before them.

“When North Carolina lawmakers eliminated our popular judicial public financing program, it compounded the problem of special interest money in court races,” said Melissa Price Kromm, director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. “Instead of talking to voters, judicial candidates have to spend time raising money, often from parties who will be appearing before the court.”

Most of the new ads are joint ads promoting two candidates, including some that include hopefuls in lower court races, FCC records show. Records do not indicate who is paying for the ads nor how the candidates may be splitting the bill. 

A review of publicly available FCC records indicates ad buys in connection with the following races:

Chief Justice Mark Martin vs. Judge Ola M. Lewis (Chief Justice incumbent) & Justice Robin Hudson vs. Eric Levinson (Hudson incumbent)

  • Chief Justice Mark Martin, who was appointed as chief justice in August and is now seeking a full term, will run ads in tandem with Eric Levinson, a fellow registered Republican who will face Justice Robin Hudson in the general election. The 334 Martin/Levinson ads total $176,000. Martin’s additional 146 solo ads will cost nearly $19,000.
     
  • Justice Hudson, a registered Democrat who was outspent in an ad war during the primary, had not booked any ads for the general election as of September 22.
     
  • Judge Ola M. Lewis, a registered Republican running for chief justice, had not booked ads by the Monday cutoff as well.

Justice Robert N. Hunter, Jr. vs. Judge Sam Ervin IV (Hunter incumbent)

  • Supreme Court candidate Judge Sam Ervin IV and Court of Appeals candidate Mark Davis, both registered Democrats, have teamed up to book 689 ad spots costing $328,000. Ervin has also booked 29 spots on his own totaling $7,525.
     
  • Justice Robert N. Hunter, Jr., who was appointed to the Supreme Court in August and is Ervin’s opponent in the Nov. 4 general election, has booked both solo ads and joint advertisements with Judge Lucy Inman, a Court of Appeals candidate and registered Democrat. Hunter, a registered Republican, also bought airtime for 31 solo ads costing $15,375. The 155 Hunter/Inman ads will total $22,400.

Justice Cheri Beasley vs. Michael Robinson (Beasley incumbent)

  • In the fourth Supreme Court race, lawyer Michael Robinson and fellow registered Republican John Bryant, a candidate for district attorney in Wake County, has bought airtime for 297 ads worth $130,000.  Robinson will also run 81 solo ads for less than $9,700.
     
  • Robinson, who is a lawyer in Winston-Salem, is challenging Justice Cheri Beasley in the statewide race. Beasley, a registered Democrat, had not booked any ads as of Monday, September 22.

North Carolina’s elections are nonpartisan and candidates’ party affiliation will not appear on the ballot.

FCC records were identified from the following North Carolina TV stations: WFMY, WRAL, WTVD, WRAZ, WSOC, WCNC, WCTI, WNCN, WGHP, WWAY, WXII, and WSFX.