March 13, 2014

Guest Column:
Protecting what remains of separation of powers


The North Carolina Constitution's Section 6 calls for the separation of powers. The mandate is simple and to the point: "The legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other."

Nonpartisan judicial races are under attack by Art Pope and his friends. Although not elected to office, Pope, through the use of his vast fortune, controls the Governor’s office and both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly. He dictated the redistricting plans, the state’s budget and much of the legislation that is hurting North Carolinians – many of the issues are being or will be challenged in the higher courts. But the good news is that Gov. Pat McCrory is happy to be part of Pope's cabinet because it leaves him time to hand out cookies and try to clean the egg off his face.

The campaign finance laws meant to keep party politics and big-monied special interests from deciding judicial elections and influence court decisions were done away with or changed under Pope’s direction. He saw to it that the public campaign fund that helped level the judicial playing field was abolished. And he upped the cap on individual contributions to judicial candidates from $1,000 to $5,000. In other words, he set the stage for special interests to buy special favors. And now he is fundraising for his choice for the appellate courts.

Ask most who they are casting their votes for in the judges' races and the question often will be met with a blank stare or a giggle and silly remark such as "Everyone who has four letters in their first name."

Because judicial candidates are supposed to be nonpartisan and are forbidden to discuss pending or probable cases coming before their courts, it can be difficult to determine whom to support. The outcomes in these elections often are determined by whim rather than reason. And now that the door has been opened to millions of dollars being used by outside interests -- frequently from out of state -- and used primarily for negative advertising, the winners can be those who are going to be beholden to others.

During the 2014 elections, three judges will be elected to the 15-member North Carolina Appeals and four justices will be elected to the seven-member North Carolina Supreme Court. The seats are for eight years and will have substantial impact on whether justice is served for the next several years.

The only way that I know to get a feel for whether a judge is sticking to basing opinions on statute, Constitution and case law is to look at their actions while serving as judges. And those who know me won't be surprised that I've done just that.

I've chosen to support three appellate court candidates -- Appeals Court Judge Mark Davis is running to retain his seat; Appeals Court Judge Sam "Jimmy" Ervin IV is seeking a seat on the state Supreme Court, and Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley wishes to remain on the bench.

Justice Beasley was the first black woman to win a statewide race without being first appointed when she was elected to her former seat on the Court of Appeals. Previous to that, she served for nine years as a District Court judge. She stepped up to the Supreme Court upon appointment by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Before being appointed to the Appeals Court, Judge Davis handled more than 65 appeals in the N.C. Court of Appeals, Supreme Court of North Carolina, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit so has the right experience to hear and decide cases.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, when Judge Ervin ran for the N.C. Supreme Court in 2012, it became one of the most controversial and expensive judicial races in the country. Together, Art Pope and his friends in partisan organizations -- both inside and outside the state -- spent more than $2.5 million on negative advertising aimed at defeating Ervin.

Whenever I see negative political campaign ads, I always have to wonder why. If the candidate they support is so excellent, why don't they spend the money promoting their favored candidate rather than attack the opposition. Can't they think of anything nice to say about their own candidate? Every time you see a negative ad against anyone, you might want to ask yourself the same question.

Hugh Morton showed us years ago how pennies can add up when he had school children collect change to use toward the purchase of the USS North Carolina so that it could avoid the wrecking ball and instead find a permanent home in Wilmington. He launched the Save Our Ship Campaign, and the result was that of the 1.1 million North Carolina schoolchildren, 700,000 gave at least a dime which totaled -- in today's dollars -- more than $2 million.

Campaign money is no different -- whether $5, $25 or $5,000-- if everyone gives what they can afford, it will add up and help tip the scales in the direction needed to have free, unbiased, and unbeholden courts. It will help balance the scales and put the blindfold back on Lady Justice.

I hope you will join me in supporting these candidates. There is no doubt that a lot of cloudy money will be used to try to defeat them. Few, if any, of us have the financial means to match the corrupt money pouring into races, but we have something better -- our vote -- and together, we can help make up the difference in campaign contributions.

Together, we can help save this last bastion of separation of powers continue to stay above politics. So, brothers and sisters, can you spare a dime...a dollar...a grand?


Meet the candidates and enjoy a continental breakfast from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 21, at the Pier House at Hilton Gardens in Kitty Hawk. The limit on contributions to judicial candidates has been increased to $5,000 per election cycle. Checks should be written to each of the individual candidates.

If stopping by the breakfast to meet the judges, please RSVP by email to [email protected].

To learn more about the judges, go to their campaign websites at:

(Sandy Semans Ross is a retired journalist and former editor of the Outer Banks Sentinel. She is also a Democratic candidate for the District 1 seat on the Dare County Board of Commissioners. You can read more of her blogs at

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