Four years ago, Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson issued an extraordinary order. He overturned the jury’s guilty verdict in a burglary case against a man whose conviction would have made him a habitual felon in line for a long prison term.
The Mecklenburg County prosecutor was stunned. “I have never seen a judge throw out a jury’s verdict, ever,” Assistant District Attorney Robyn Withrow told WBTV.
Levinson cited a lack of evidence — despite what the jury concluded.
As it turned out, Levinson was vindicated when the state took the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel agreed with him. He was right. But what a risk he took. The safe course would have been to accept the jury’s verdict, pronounce a tough sentence and forget about it. Instead, by protecting a man from an unjust conviction, he could have been targeted as “soft on crime” in attack ads the next time he ran for the bench.
Levinson is running now for the N.C. Supreme Court. He’s well-qualified, having also served on the state Court of Appeals and worked for the U.S. Justice Department in Iraq.
No one is airing negative ads against him. The woman he’s trying to unseat, Justice Robin Hudson, isn’t so lucky. An independent political organization called Justice for All North Carolina just spent more than $500,000 on TV ads saying she easy on child molesters.
That’s dishonest, twisting a complex issue into a nasty sound bite. In 2010, the Supreme Court considered whether a new law requiring satellite-based monitoring could be applied retroactively to sex offenders sentenced before the law was enacted. It touched on a constitutional principle barring ex post facto punishments.
The court ruled 4-3 in favor of retroactive application, deciding that monitoring was not punitive. Hudson wrote the dissenting opinion, and sound arguments were made on both sides. Oklahoma’s Supreme Court went the other way in a similar case last year.
Also troubling is the source of the money for these TV ads. Justice for All North Carolina last week reported receiving $650,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington. Its largest funders include Koch Industries’ political organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Reynolds American and Blue Cross Blue Shield, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Coincidentally, perhaps, a second TV campaign began running ads promoting both Levinson and the third candidate for this seat, Jeanette Doran. The top two in next week’s primary will advance to the November election.
These ads are paid for by North Carolina Chamber IE, an independent expenditure committee. Its largest funders, according to its State Board of Elections filing, are Reynolds American, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and Koch Industries Public Sector LLC.
Money for both TV ad campaigns is coming from some of the same sources.
Our courts are nonpartisan, but Hudson is a Democrat; Levinson and Doran are Republicans. Because of the Republican U.S. Senate primary, GOP turnout Tuesday is expected to be high. With some ads trying to knock Hudson down, and others touting Levinson and Doran, Republicans probably have the best chance of eliminating Hudson from the race now rather than in the fall.
It will be shameful if big-dollar negative ads, funded by out-of-state interests, have a decisive impact in a North Carolina court race. What’s the payoff supposed to be? It will be worse in the future if judges hedge their rulings to avoid setting themselves up for distorted attacks.
These ads are not associated with the candidates themselves: Levinson declines to criticize Hudson. “It is very, very important to me that I run a positive, credible campaign that North Carolina can be proud of,” he told me.
Doran, a former director of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law who currently chairs a state board that reviews unemployment cases, cited the court’s four Republicans as those she most admires for their “commitment to judicial restraint” and said Hudson shows “a little more willingness to get into the policy arena.”
Yet, Hudson is well regarded in law circles. She joins the court’s majority far more often than not, and she was seasoned by six years on the Court of Appeals before winning her present seat in 2006.
Voters should consider the candidates’ qualifications rather than rely on TV attack ads for the truth.
If smears work, judges who want to be re-elected will follow two rules: In criminal cases, do what’s popular rather than what’s right. In all other cases, listen to the money.