Alumni Supreme Court Candidates Talk Financing, Ethics


Political diehards of every Davidson persuasion have been known to cross party lines for one reason and one reason only: the candidate in question is a Davidson alumnus or alumna.

But in races this fall for two different seats on the N.C. Supreme Court, they won't have to – as of 2013, judicial races in the state are officially non-partisan.

"Officially" is the key word here, agree Mike Robinson '77, a civil trial attorney, and the Hon. Sam J. ("Jimmy") Ervin '78, a sitting N.C. Court of Appeals judge.

"I'm a conservative,..." begins the campaign homepage text for Robinson, who makes no secret of his Republican affiliation.

Ditto for Ervin and his status as a Democrat.

"Anybody who thinks an Ervin is not a Democrat,..." says the grandson of the famed Nixon-era constitutionalist, Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr.

His comment trails off into shared laughter. The candidates are on common ground today, for an early April interview just up the road from alma mater at the Iredell County Courthouse in Statesville. Ervin drove from Morganton, Robinson from Winston-Salem.

Of even more importance than partisan leanings for this race is the 2013 elimination of public financing for North Carolina judicial campaigns. That sea change in how judges are elected comes against powerful forces already in play, notably an increasingly complex and expensive media landscape and a historically limited level of voter interest in the state's judicial races.

The judiciary is what WFAE, a Charlotte-area NPR News affiliate, called an "equal but unknown branch" of government, in a report by Tom Bullock, "Majority of Supreme Court Seats Up For Grabs. Are They Also Up For Sale?"

The question itself is an indicator of what Ervin characterizes as a significant ethical dilemma. When public financing went away, so did spending caps and lower contribution limits.

On the other hand, Robinson favors the change, and reliance on the free market. He argues from the economic standpoint that statewide races are simply too expensive to be run effectively under the old rules and their dollar caps, which he called "grossly insufficient" to get a candidate's word out to voters.

"More information is better than less information," Robinson said.

Ervin doesn't disagree with the principle that voters should be well-informed about the available choices in judicial elections but is adamant that the current electoral system creates an ethical dilemma for judicial candidates, particularly sitting judges.

"It is inevitable that you call up members of the bar and other folks you think of who might be willing to contribute money and you ask them for it," Ervin said in the radio interview. "Is that comfortable? No. Do I like doing that? No. Is it a good thing for judges to do that? No."

Ervin worries about even the appearance of conflict of interest, which he notes is a moving target at best. A judicial candidate cannot solicit money from a lawyer or litigant in any case which is currently pending before that judge. But the docket for which he is responsible changes constantly, so Ervin updates his approved solicitation list every two weeks. Even so, an N.C. Supreme Court justice sits for an eight-year term, increasing the odds of an eventual perception of conflict of interest, what Ervin sometimes calls "seemliness issues."

"It's a good thing the Judicial Standards Commission offices are in my building. I'm down there all the time [seeking advice]!" he said.

Honor and Service

Both Ervin and Robinson recall their time at Davidson as solidifying their commitment to an ethical life.

"The Honor Code per se was part of a much broader experience," said Ervin. "For four years, the Honor Code was a major part of the formation of who I am today. I saw it in the personal integrity of folks who were there with me."

As one of those who was there at the same time, Robinson also recalls the emphasis on service that informs campus culture at Davidson, and his sense of duty today.

"Being on the Supreme Court is being a servant, and there is no higher calling for a lawyer than being a judge," he said. "It is important work, and if we're not willing to serve, the system is broken."

Ervin agreed.

"If good people are not willing to serve, the system will collapse of itself," he said. "To have the opportunity to do something interesting and meaningful that benefits my fellow citizens, I would consider it a blessing."