News: CJ Exclusives

GOP Judges Show Party Colors

Despite change to non-partisan races, they pointedly mention party

Some Republican candidates nationally are running away from their party and President Bush’s low approval ratings, but in North Carolina judges who are Republicans are mostly embracing their political party affiliation — even though they don’t have to.

The Democratic-dominated General Assembly converted the judicial ballots to nonpartisan during the 2002 session after a string of Republican successes in Supreme Court and Appeals Court races.

Some judges see a winning strategy by identifying themselves with the political right, despite the removal of labels. Court of Appeals Judge Anne Marie Calabria, on her Web site, says President Ronald Reagan is her hero and that her favorite judge is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“I am proud to be endorsed by the Republican Party because Republicans stand for free enterprise, keeping government off our backs, lower taxes and protecting our national security,” said Calabria, who is running for the Supreme Court. “Republicans believe that the Constitution means what it says: that it was designed to create a government of limited powers that would protect private property rights and individual rights.”

Calabria is the only candidate for Court of Appeals or for the Supreme Court to cite specifically her Republican Party endorsement on her campaign Web site. Other judicial candidates backed by the state GOP instead cite their endorsements by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, both prominent Republicans, on their own Web sites.

North Carolina’s 2006 election is the second in which court candidates will appear on ballots without their party affiliation. And as in 2004, they are more likely to emphasize their party ties if they are Republicans; less so if they’re Democrats.

“I’m not trying to hide my political affiliation,” said Court of Appeals Judge Robin Hudson, who is endorsed by the Democratic Party and is opposing Calabria. “I take seriously now that the races are supposed to be nonpartisan. I don’t have an agenda. My goal is to be fair to everyone.”

Both the state Republican and Democrat parties have handy cards that voters can print from their respective Web sites and take with them to the polls. Ballots don’t tell voters which party the judicial candidates represent, but their cheat sheets can.

Still, a political party endorsement doesn’t carry as much effect if the individual candidates do not promote them to prospective voters. The Republicans running for judicial seats are finding it more beneficial for themselves to do so than are Democrats.

“It’s the first question a whole lot of people ask,” said Wake County District Judge Donna Stroud, who is running for a seat on the Court of Appeals. “It’s perfectly OK for us to do that, but people have the perception that we’re not supposed to do that. We still have the First Amendment last time I checked.”

Stroud was one of four Republicans who also cited endorsements by Dole and Burr on the Nonpartisan Judicial Voter Guide, in which candidates provide biographical information for distribution by the State Board of Elections. The others who did so were Superior Court Judge Rusty Duke, who is running for chief justice of the Supreme Court; Court of Appeals Judge Eric Levinson, who is also running for a Supreme Court seat; and lawyer Kris Bailey, who is seeking an Appeals Court seat.

Conversely, none of the judges or justices who are Democrats cites their party on the Board of Elections guide, nor do they mention endorsements by any prominent officials from their party. As for their individual campaign Web sites, among those running for appellate court seats, only Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson notes the support of her candidacy by a prominent Democrat official: Gov. Mike Easley. The governor appointed Timmons-Goodson to a vacant spot on the court in February.

The only other judicial candidate’s Web site that hints of a Democratic tie is that of Judge Linda Stephens, whom Stroud is challenging. Stephens’s Web site is designed and maintained by an organization called Wake Up Yellow Dogs, which says it “support(s) local businesses, candidates, and organizations that support progressive principles and the arts.”

Duke, who is challenging N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker, begins his personal statement on the Board of Elections voter guide with “I am a Conservative….”

Democrats, on the other hand, seem content to emphasize their endorsements by law enforcement groups, fellow lawyers, newspaper editorial boards, and other organizations. They say campaigning that way demonstrates their candidates will impart justice fairly and without a preconceived agenda.

“I think tactically [Republican judges] are playing to a certain segment of the electorate,” said Damon Circosta, campaign manager for Judge Bob Hunter, who is running for re-election to the Court of Appeals. “They’re trying to turn that electorate out. I don’t think it’s a wise move, and it’s not the right move for the court. It’s not the right thing to do.”

But Duke said voters favor Republicans in court races because they are less likely to try and manufacture law through “judicial activism.” That is why GOP candidates tend more to show their party preferences.

“The voters believe, when they hear the word ‘conservative,’ they say ‘ah, this person will interpret the Constitution,'” Duke said.

Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.