If it walks like an Elephant, talks like an Elephant, looks like an Elephant, why can’t it say it’s an Elephant?
After the last post, I had a question as to how to find out what political party the candidates for Judge were. The bad news is it is a bit difficult, but the good news is it probably doesn't matter a great deal. Since 2002, judges in North Carolina have run in non-partisan elections, meaning that they do not run as a member of one particular party and are only listed in their individual names. Judges are ethically obligated under the North Carolina Judicial Code of Conduct to apply the law fairly and impartially, whether they agree with it or not. The thought was that party affiliation, unlike in a legislative or executive election, would not inform the public as to whether or not a judicial candidate could perform the job duties of the position they were seeking.
One criticism of a nonpartisan election is that it removes the party's campaign financing support and would leave only people with private fortunes able to run for the state-wide judicial seats. To combat this problem, also in 2002, North Carolina became the first state to adopt full public financing of appellate judicial elections. Candidates for the NC Court of Appeals and NC Supreme Court who follow strict fundraising and spending limits can use public financing. You have the option to pay for the fund every year with a $3 check-off on your tax return, and I pay for it every year with a $50 contribution from my annual renewal of my privilege license to practice law. The public financing rule also helps to erase doubts about the impartiality of judges who might collect funds from special interest groups or attorneys. The amounts available are not large. One candidate this year said the amount wouldn't even pay for a single mailing to all NC voters.
Now there is nothing (thanks to the 1st Amendment and some recent U.S. Supreme Court cases) preventing a judicial candidate from being a member of one party or another, or commenting on issues like gun control, the death penalty or abortion, but you might have to do some digging in their background to find it. A few will describe themselves "conservative" (although I haven't seen any that describe themselves as "liberal"), but most rely primarily on their experience and background, as those are the most important factors that would let them accurately and fairly make judicial decisions. You might get a hint on their affiliation if they were appointed to the bench or to a federal position on which governor or president appointed them or if you can determine what party they ran under prior to 2002. Many of the candidates have signed a pledge with the North Carolina Bar Association that calls for candidates "to preserve the integrity, impartiality and dignity of the judiciary" and not comment on pending cases and issues and to refrain from negative comments about their opponent.
In my own experience at the trial court level (District and Superior Court) I can say that I've never been able to determine a political leaning or partisanship in any trial I've had. Again, there really isn't usually an opportunity for a trial judge to make a political statement in any ruling at a trial or motion. Neither have I had that experience at the Court of Appeals or NC Supreme Court, although there is a greater opportunity for those judges to engage in legislating from the bench.
As I indicated in the last post, all the candidates running this year seem well qualified and none of them I would warn anyone away from.
–Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation, and whose only reason to consider running for office would be all the free barbecue at political rallies.