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Raleigh, N.C.-Just as a North Carolina law goes into effect to try to take some of the politics out of picking judges, new conduct rules will give the state’s judicial candidates the widest latitude in the nation to campaign as they please-and judges are crying foul. With judicial elections coming next year, the state Supreme Court has overhauled North Carolina’s Code of Judicial Conduct, giving sitting judges and judicial candidates greater guidance on what they can and can’t do. There’s much more now in the “can do” category-including asking lawyers directly for campaign contributions and promising to rule in certain ways if elected. The court’s six Republicans and one Democrat earlier this year adopted the changes unanimously without inviting lawyers and judges to review and comment on them first. Late last week, the state’s Association of District Court Judges revolted, sending the Supreme Court a resolution asking it to rescind the changes. The resolution charged that the code revision “severely compromises the appearance of judicial impartiality and fosters the public perception that politics play an essential role in matters of judicial conduct.” Legal experts say the revision goes further than any other state’s judicial code in reacting to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year striking down prohibitions against judicial candidates stating their views on controversial topics, a limitation North Carolina dropped in 1997. Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U.S. 765 (2002). Cynthia Gray, director of the American Judicature Society’s Center for Judicial Ethics in Chicago, said the action goes further than the U.S. Supreme Court in White, “any subsequent federal court decision, or any subsequent code revision by any other state supreme court.” ‘Common politicians’? Next year, all North Carolina judicial elections will be nonpartisan for the first time. Public funding will be available for candidates for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals if they raise substantial money of their own and agree to spending limits. The justices say the code changes will make for smoother judicial elections and fewer complaints about misconduct. “The old code generated too much uncertainty and controversy,” Chief Justice Beverly Lake Jr. said. “Now we have a clear set of guidelines.” But the revision concerns many North Carolina lawyers and veteran trial and appellate judges. “Many of these changes tear down the differences between judges and legislators,” said Judge James Wynn of the state Court of Appeals, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Working Group on the First Amendment and Judicial Campaign Speech. “If you break us down to be no more than common politicians, I fear that will damage the integrity of the judiciary.” Some jurists and academics criticize letting judges ask people-including lawyers who appear before them-for campaign contributions directly. The old rule required them to set up a committee to raise money. They worry that unscrupulous judges will pressure lawyers to contribute to their campaigns in courthouse shakedowns, and they cringe at the image of judges begging for money. “Does the judge ask the parties for a contribution before oral argument or after oral argument?” asked Georgetown University Law Center’s Roy Schotland. “Does he pass the hat in court?” Lake said the rules still forbid judges to coerce lawyers to contribute. And the indirect way of soliciting was disingenuous, he said. “You really don’t remove yourself much when you set up a committee and have someone ask for you,” he said. “It’s a facade.” The Supreme Court said that it changed the code to allow judicial candidates to promise to rule in certain ways if elected so as to get ahead of a trend toward looser campaign regulations in recent federal court rulings in New York and Georgia, and to avoid suits over the state requirements, though White explicitly avoided the issue of making pledges or promises. “By anticipating the constitutional arguments that spring from this federal case law, the recent code revisions intend to avoid the piecemeal disassembly of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct by federal courts,” Justice Mark Martin, an authority on the code, told state trial judges at a recent conference.

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