Campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall filed a complaint with the North Carolina Board of Elections against NC Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr and four other Republican elected officials.
According to WRAL, the complaint alleges that Berger and others may have violated state law by donating to a PAC “supporting Berger’s picks” in Republican judicial primaries.
Berger and four other Republican elected officials contributed to NC for Justice PAC, a new PAC supporting candidates for Court of Appeals and NC Supreme Court. Berger Jr. contributed $4,000, Senator Todd Johnson, R-Union, and Rep. David Willis each gave $1,000. Court of Appeals Judge Jeff Carpenter and Senator Jim Perry R-Harnett each contributed $5,600.
Hall claims that state law bars candidates from contributing directly to PACs or independent expenditure committees. Hall is asking the State Board of Elections to find the contributions illegal and require the PAC to forfeit them to the civil penalty fund.
The PAC posted a photo to Facebook of a mailer attacking Republican Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud and supporting her primary opponent, Beth Freshwater Smith. Justice Berger Jr. publicly endorsed Freshwater Smith in the primary and it was recently revealed that he disagreed with Stroud’s hiring practices, claiming that she gave preferential treatment to the “Dem’s candidate” for clerk of court.
Stroud defeated Freshwater Smith in the Republican primary election for Court of Appeals and will face Brad Salmon this fall.
Justice Berger taking the potentially illegal step of funneling money to a group attacking his former colleague speaks to a larger problem plaguing the North Carolina courts today.
Justices Newby and Berger, sitting judges who will not be on the ballot again for years, have had an unprecedented amount of involvement in ongoing campaigns. The political activity of judges has been a topic of controversy in recent months. The Executive Director of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission recently resigned after she posted a memo advising judges to limit their political campaigning to the period in which they are seeking re-election. The memo was quickly removed and replaced with a different, looser interpretation in response to Republican backlash that the move would limit freedom of speech.
Limiting campaigning to only active judicial candidates would hinder the ability of judges who are early in their terms such as Justice Berger from influencing elections. Justice Berger and Chief Justice Paul Newby have frequently exercised a “loophole” in judicial standards by declaring themselves well before their re-election. However, Justice Newby will reach the mandatory retirement age before he is eligible for re-election. Justice Berger has also exercised this loophole by headlining fundraisers for Republican legislators.