The North Carolina Republican Party on Saturday endorsed Raleigh lawyer Paul Newby for the Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Robert Orr, and the gesture gave an inkling of how the two major political parties might treat the nonpartisan races this year.

The 2004 campaign marks the first election in which candidates for appellate court judgeships cannot denote their party affiliation on the ballot. The Democrat-dominated General Assembly applied the new restrictions during the 2002 session after a string of Republican successes in Supreme Court and Appeals Court races in recent election cycles.

Interviews with candidates and party officials, and information culled from their websites, indicate that the GOP and judicial nominees they support may show more boldness about their ties than will the Democrats.

“I think it benefits Republicans to have their party identified,” said Bill Peaslee, chief of staff for the North Carolina Republican Party. “When the average voter goes to vote, they think law and order, and they think Republican.”

That belief has been supported in the results for state Supreme Court races, which Republicans have dominated since 1998. The results for Court of Appeals races were more mixed since that time, although the GOP won four out of five of those races in 2002.

“Clearly this is one way to try to dilute the Republican advantage in judicial elections,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.

But the recent elections in which GOP candidates emerged victorious were mostly by slim margins. Taylor said that at least Democratic lawmakers showed some restraint by keeping judgeships as elected offices.

“They could have gone even further and made them all appointed,” he said. Such a move would have favored Democrats, who hold nearly all the Council of State offices and have maintained power in the legislature for some time.

Given the current rules, however, conservative candidates seem more poised to capitalize on their Republican ties than their opponents do with the Democratic Party. Besides Newby, the state GOP announced in May that it would endorse Court of Appeals candidates Barbara Jackson, Bill Parker, and Alice Stubbs.

As for their opponents, the North Carolina Democratic Party on its website lists the “Democratic candidates for the NC Supreme Court and the NC Court of Appeals,” and links to the websites of candidates who have them. For the most part, the candidates with websites don’t emphasize their party affiliations, and express support for the changes in the election law. Judge Linda McGee, running for re-election to the Court of Appeals, does not mention her Democratic support on her website. Judge Wanda Bryant, seeking to return to her seat, appears in a photo with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the homepage of her website.

Judge Alan Thornburg, who is trying to fend off a challenge from Jackson, stressed the need for support from Republicans and Democrats on his website. However, he exhibits his political identity with photographs of his appearance at a John Kerry for President rally. Likewise, Supreme Court candidate James Wynn proudly posts a photo of himself with Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards on the top of his website.

Most candidates interviewed for this article said whether they would reveal their party affiliation depended on their audience. Taylor said office seekers would naturally play up their politics in partisan environs, but not so much in neutral settings.

“What I’ve been doing is if people ask me, I let them know,” Jackson said. “Of course, with Republican groups I volunteer that, but I wouldn’t walk into the Rotary Club and tell them.”

Candidates, and representatives from both parties, said they couldn’t exactly foretell how they might use their affiliations as Election Day draws nearer.

“I honestly haven’t thought about that,” said Schorr Johnson, communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party. “Before the primary we sent out an e-mail to our newsletter subscribers. At the very least we’ll do something like that.”

Republicans were noncommittal about using their resources for judicial races.

“We’ll leave it up to the candidates to use the endorsement as they so choose,” Peaslee said.

But the change to nonpartisanship on the ballot is likely to diminish the number of votes for judicial candidates on both sides — even more so than before. Removal of party affiliation, Peaslee said, leaves the voter only with a name and a face for information, which he said, “is not enough. I think you’re going to see a dramatic dropoff in voter participation in judicial races.”

“The people are looking for a shortcut to determine judicial philosophy,” Newby said. “I think [identifying with a party platform] is a fair means to use.”

Thornburg said he maintained hope that “the voters will know [judges] are in a nonpartisan race” and get informed, but conceded that was less likely in the new system.

“We want to do everything we can to make it successful,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is get folks to find the judges, because they’re going to be down the ballot. It will take some time to learn [the new system].”

Jackson, who likely will be financially outgunned in her challenge to Thornburg, said many of the voters she met are confused.

“Judicial races are complicated anyway,” she said. “When [voters] had a party affiliation to look to, they had something. It’s proving difficult now.

“It is a third co-equal branch of government, and it often gets overlooked.”

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected].