Ideological battles animate state judge races

by Jordan Green

Six electoral contests in the North Carolina court system’s appellate division reveal a staid and cautious institution girded by a system of gubernatorial appointments and judicial endorsements that is only slightly perturbed by ideological stirrings at the partisan fringes, including a Republican-turned-Democrat who shouts her opposition to the war in Iraq and a conservative who advertises her opposition to corporate regulation.

Although the races are officially nonpartisan, endorsements by the state Republican and Democratic parties, along with conservative groups and state labor unions, leave little doubt about who is who.

Four out of seven seats on the NC Supreme Court are up for election. Two out of 15 seats on the NC Court of Appeals are in play. Terms for justices in both courts last eight years.

The contest for the most important judicial post in the state -‘ a position constitutionally equal to that of House Speaker Jim Black and Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight combined, and to that of Gov. Mike Easley – is being fought between the newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker, a jurist with more than a dozen years on the bench, and Rusty Duke, a superior court judge from Greenville charging from the right.

As the incumbent, the 64-year-old Parker’s campaign is barely visible. Her official biography mentions her membership in Charlotte’s Christ Episcopal Church, her stint in Turkey as a volunteer with the US Peace Corps in the 1960s and her past service as a member of the NC Democratic Party. Gov. Easley announced his appointment of Parker to replace I. Beverly Lake as chief justice in January just before the jurist’s retirement. Parker has received the endorsement of the NC Democratic Party.

Her less experienced challenger is more energetically attempting to define his candidacy. Duke’s campaign website declares his conservative credentials, utilizes emotive rhetoric and carves out distinctive ideological terrain. A Baptist and a member of the Federalist Society, Duke declares himself a “conservative Republican” who will “uphold the constitution of our state and protect the safety and property rights of our families.” Furthermore, he claims “a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense trial court judge” opposed to “judicial activism that seeks to change social policy by judicial interpretation,” and “believes the traditional family is the foundation of our culture.” No surprise then that he has the endorsement of the NC Republican Party and that the Down East Republican Club concludes: “There is absolutely nothing liberal about Judge Duke.”

Second in seniority is Mark D. Martin, who is serving his 14th year at the Supreme Court. Thanks in part to his competition, the 43-year-old Martin appears invincible. Even before his primary election he received the endorsement of the last five chief justices, who wrote: “While, we as a group, do not necessarily agree on every political question confronting society, we do agree unanimously that persons who serve on the highest court in this state should have impeccable legal credentials, unquestionable judicial demeanor and temperament, and unquestionable integrity’… From time to time there are elections that transcend all political boundaries. This is one such election.”

Martin also received the endorsement of the NC Republican Party. The NC Democratic Party has decided to sit this one out.

Martin’s challenger is Rachel Lea Hunter, a Cary lawyer in private practice, who has never worn judicial robes. She raised eyebrows at the beginning of her campaign when she tried unsuccessfully to get herself listed on the ballot as “Madame Justice.” A former Republican, she now positions herself as a defender against neoconservative attackers, advertises her support for anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and writes ambiguously about the need to “get to the truth about what really happened” on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hunter’s website notes that the candidate underwent “extensive brain surgery” in May, but she insists, “I am neither as irrational nor as crazy as claimed by some in the media.” If the state’s Democratic establishment was ambivalent about Hunter’s candidacy early on, by June the party saw her bid in much more stark outlines. As has been widely reported, Hunter sent out a mass e-mail disparaging African-American congressional candidate Vernon Robinson’s relationship to the Republican Party. “Like a good slave,” Hunter wrote, “he has returned to the plantation.”

The NC Democratic Party’s repudiation came swiftly. Chair Jerry Meek recommended that the party withhold endorsement in the race for Martin’s seat.

“Vernon Robinson is an embarrassment to himself and to the many well-meaning people of both parties who hear the call to public service and run for office,” Meek said in a June 6 statement. “Between now and November, he will run his campaign of sleaze and I am confident that voters will again reject him. However, today Rachel Lea Hunter crossed the line. Her characterization of Robinson as a ‘slave’ was reprehensible and I call on her to apologize. This racial epithet has no place in any political dialogue, even directed towards someone as contemptible as Vernon Robinson.”

Like Sarah Parker, Patricia Timmons-Goodson is also an Easley nominee who has held her post for less than a year. Easley appointed the 52-year-old Timmons-Goodson, a Fayetteville Democrat, to fill the associate justice position vacated by Parker when she was promoted to chief justice. Before that Timmons-Goodson sat on the NC Court of Appeals, to which she was appointed in 1997 by Gov. Jim Hunt. Formerly an assistant district attorney and staff attorney for Lumbee River Legal Services, Timmons-Goodson points out in her campaign literature that if allowed to retain her seat she will be the first African-American judge elected to the NC Supreme Court.

Timmons-Goodson is being challenged by Eric Levinson, a 39-year-old Charlotte Republican. Levinson, who made a campaign stop at the “Pig, Poultry and Politics” reception hosted by the Triad Real Estate and Building Coalition in High Point on Oct. 5, comes across as a moderate conservative. He said he does not consider himself “an activist judge” and said he made a pledge against publicly discussing issues like the death penalty, gay marriage or reproductive choice on which he might be called upon to rule. He acknowledged that judges do sometimes play the role of change agents, such as in the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on Brown v. Board of Education.

“The courts in the history of the country have played an important role – that’s undeniable -‘ but a very limited role,” he said. “We’re lawyers who happen to wear robes.”

Levinson currently adjudicates from the Court of Appeals, a position to which he was elected in 2002, after serving as a district court judge and as a prosecutor in Cabarrus and Rowan counties. He does not speak ill of his opponent, with whom he once served on the Court of Appeals, saying, “Each of us has different strengths.”

More contentious is the match up between Ann Marie Calabria and Robin Hudson for the Supreme Court associate justice seat being vacated by Justice George L. Wainwright Jr., who is retiring at the end of the year. Both candidates currently sit on the Court of Appeals, but that’s where the similarities end.

Endorsed by the NC Republican Party, the 58-year-old Calabria declares herself opposed to “legislation from the bench” and reveals that “Antonin Scalia is my favorite judge because he is the most brilliant and articulate example of a constitutionalist Supreme Court justice.” Like many members of the North Carolina judiciary Calabria opposes governments having the power to take property for a “private purpose” such as economic development, but she also endorses a legal notion that if applied would require governments to reimburse corporations for costs imposed by environmental or labor regulations.

She offers the following opinion on the issue of “regulatory takings”: “When a governmental entity exercises regulatory power to destroy or drastically reduce the economic value of private property, it is possible for such an action to constitute a taking requiring just compensation to the owner.”

Calabria also advocates legislative action to reduce punitive damage awards.

In contrast, Hudson is a former trial lawyer with a background in worker’s compensation litigation. She has the backing of the NC Democratic Party, parts of organized labor and the NC Fraternal Order of Police, in addition to the three former chief justices who are registered Democrats.

A Sept. 1 tip sheet produced by the Down East Republican Club points out the obvious.

“According to The Independent Weekly of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, Hudson was the clear, unanimous choice among progressives,” the conservative group noted. “This is a very easy race to analyze: Judge Ann Marie Calabria, conservative, versus Robin Hudson, liberal.”

A member of Page High School’s Class of ’69, Hudson returned to Greensboro recently to address the NC Association of Defense Attorneys. Without mentioning her opponent, Hudson made it clear that she is running a more cautious race.

“I am not a judicial activist, but am firmly committed to restraint, independence and to following precedent,” she said, adding: “If I take a position on an in issue of interest to a group, they might believe that I will decide cases based on that position, rather than on applying the law. Since that would be inconsistent with my oath, I am not going to do that or to suggest I might.”

Hudson described the Supreme Court as “the highest court in North Carolina and the last authority on the most serious and complex issues we face, where the decisions are sometimes literally life and death.” The Supreme Court’s work, she added, “is about protecting our system of justice, and the many issues that affect our quality of life. We have issues of property rights and environmental quality, issues about your families, your businesses, your homes, your safety.”

Bob Hunter, who is running for reelection to the Court of Appeals, has, like Hudson, received the endorsement of the Democratic Party, the NC Association of Educators and the NC AFL-CIO. Like Timmons-Goodson, Hunter was originally appointed to the Court of Appeals by Gov. Hunt. A native of Marion, Hunter likes to point out that out of 22 appellate judges he’s the only one who resides west of the Interstate 85 corridor running from Greensboro to Charlotte.

Hunter’s challenger is a Cary Republican, Kris Bailey. Formerly a district court judge, Bailey is currently employed as chief counsel for the Office of the State Auditor. Bailey is endorsed by North Carolina’s two Republican US senators and the state Republican Party. He pledges: “Out of respect for public trust, Kris Bailey refuses campaign money from lawyers.”

Party alignment is also clearly delineated in the Court of Appeals race between Linda Stephens and Donna Stroud.

Stephens, a former deputy commissioner of the NC Industrial Commission who has been listed in the Best Lawyers in America Workers Compensation Section since 1995, was appointed to the seat in January by Gov. Easley. She is endorsed by the NC Democratic Party.

Stroud, a Wake County district court judge from Zebulon, is endorsed by the NC Republican Party.

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