A North Carolina Court of Appeals judge said Tuesday he's going to run for the state's highest court again in 2014 after losing a bid for it last year in a campaign marked by lots of third-party money favoring his opponent.
Judge Sam J. Ervin IV said he will seek the seat on the Supreme Court that's being vacated by Associate Justice Mark Martin, one in a potential carousel of changes with four of the seven seats expected on the November 2014 ballot.
Ervin is the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. - known for leading the Senate's Watergate hearings. The younger Ervin received 48 percent of the vote while losing to incumbent Associate Justice Paul Newby last November.
Outside groups - funded by political organizations, corporations and individuals - spent at least $2 million on advertising in the race, even as Ervin and Newby agreed themselves to limit campaign fundraising through a voluntary public financing program for appellate court judges. Ervin spoke out in the fall campaign against the outside financial intrusion.
Ervin said in an interview Tuesday the only way to counter the outside spending, which he's argued leaves the impression with voters that judges could be influenced by special interests, is to throw his hat into the ring again.
"I am running because I believe the future of the courts is at stake," Ervin said in a statement. "I believe North Carolinians deserve fair, impartial, and independent justices who are beholden to no one and have no agenda except to follow the law."
Campaign finance reports show Justice for All NC, an independent expenditure group backing Newby, raised $1.7 million during the 2012 campaign and sent most of it to another "super PAC" called the North Carolina Judicial Coalition. The coalition ran ads building up Newby's name recognition.
The judicial races are officially nonpartisan, but Ervin is a registered Democrat and Newby a Republican. The campaign was marked by partisan hues as Newby's victory preserved a 4-3 GOP majority on the court.
The largest donor to Justice for All NC, which ran its own ad critical of Ervin, was the Republican State Leadership Committee, campaign reports said. A group backing Ervin's candidacy spent more than $260,000, a report said. The outside money didn't go directly to the candidates and couldn't be used in coordination with a campaign.
Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter of Morehead City says he's running for Martin's seat as well next year.
Martin is shifting to run for the chief justice's position because state law requires incumbent Sarah Parker to retire next year at age 72. Martin and Hunter are Republicans. Parker is a Democrat. The court terms of Democrats Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson also expire at the end of 2014. Appellate court judges serve eight-year terms.
An elections overhaul bill signed into law this month by Gov. Pat McCrory repealed the judicial public financing program, which was very popular with appeals court candidates. That means these candidates will raise money similarly to traditional candidates. Instead of trying to generate small contributions to qualify for public funds, the judicial hopefuls will now aim to raise up to $5,000 per election from contributors.
Ervin, a Morganton attorney who previously served on the state Utilities Commission before getting elected to the Court of Appeals in 2008, said he understands third-party money could attempt to influence his race next year, too. He said the alternative to running again is to get out of the public arena: "The only other option that I can see to fall back on is nonparticipation."