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Balance of Power

"Why I have to work so hard to get on the ballot for what should already be a nonpartisan position is ridiculous," wrote Tiffany Lesnik, an independent judicial candidate in Raleigh.

Two parties squelch outsiders in N.C. judicial elections

People who aspire to judgeships in North Carolina but don't want to run on a party line are facing strict new rules and tight deadlines.

The tougher burdens, which only apply to non-affiliated candidates, are part of the state's comprehensive return this fall to partisan elections for judges. Good-government groups say that filling the bench this way is hardly the best option for getting the most qualified and fair people administering justice or for instilling public confidence in the court system.

In fact, the Tar Heel State is bucking the trend as many more states have abandoned partisan judicial elections in recent years than have adopted them. This year, North Carolina is among just 11 states picking all their judges this way. All but a handful of the other states have nonpartisan elections or allow voters to retain or dismiss judges first appointed by their governors.

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Dark money flowing fastest into state judicial races, analysts find

Special-interest groups, many with donors the public never knows about, continued to play an outsized role in the financing of elections for state Supreme Courts across the country, a new analysis finds.

More than $39.7 million was spent on four dozen contests for seats on the top courts in 21 states last year, and 27 percent of the money was contributed by advocacy organizations allowed by state and federal laws to keep secret the identities of their benefactors. The calculation was unveiled Wednesday by the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for tougher campaign finance regulation and many other causes on the left side of the democracy reform debate.

By comparison, in no election during the past two decades have these so-called "dark money" organizations accounted for more than 19 percent of all spending in races for Congress.

The lack of donor transparency has the obvious potential to obscure all sorts of conflicts of interest for the justices on state Supreme Courts, who have the final say annually on litigation directing billions of dollars into corporate coffers and consumers' wallets. And, the Brennan Center wrote, it also undermines the public's confidence in state judicial systems maintaining their impartiality.

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Big Picture

Iowa abandons nonpartisan judicial selections, imperiling its 'good government' reputation

Iowa was the first state to take partisan politics out of redistricting. Now it's the latest state to restore partisan politics to the judicial selection process.

The Republican-run legislature pushed through a bill this month giving the governor a dominant hand in picking judges and justices to the state's top courts, undoing the essentially nonpartisan system that's been in place for six decades.

That old law's adoption in the 1960s, and the decision starting back in 1980 to fight partisan gerrymandering by turning over the drawing of electoral boundaries to anonymous bureaucrats, earned Iowa plaudits as one of the most democracy-reform-minded states.

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