I. Beverly Lake Jr. came close Tuesday to becoming the first Republican ever to be elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court. He apparently fell just a couple of thousand votes short of unseating incumbent Justice John Webb. He came much closer to winning than any other Republican on the statewide ballot.Why is that? Webb speculated afterward that Lake's famous name had garnered him a few thousand votes. Lake's father and namesake served with dignity and perhaps some distinction on the Supreme Court for many years during the '60s and '70s. But it seems unlikely that that particular aspect of his career would have attracted many votes to his son. Supreme Court justices were even more invisible to the electorate at large in those days than they are now.
No, if anything about Lake Senior's life redounded to the benefit of Lake Junior, it was probably his campaigns for governor in 1960 and 1964. It was then that the elder Lake, previously a mannerly law professor, burned his name indelibly into Tar Heel memory by running what were probably the last statewide segregationist campaigns.
Lake Senior lost the Democratic nomination for governor, first to Terry Sanford, then (in a first primary) to Richardson Preyer and the ultimate winner, Dan Moore. What Lake won, besides a Moore appointment to the Supreme Court, was a permanent place in the hearts of Tar Heel die-hards.
When Beverly Lake Jr. came by in search of an editorial endorsement earlier this fall, I was surprised to hear him tell of taking his elderly father along while campaigning Down East, apparently with some success. Among other things, it's a dramatic illustration of how little party labels signify in this state today.
Was it the name, then, that enabled Lake to run well ahead of the rest of the Republican judicial slate? Or was there more to it than that? Judicial campaigns are still too new a phenomenon in this state to have produced much conventional wisdom.
In many ways, Lake ran the most aggressive judicial campaign, talking more candidly than most about court issues and covering a lot of the state. I'm told he ran some rather pointed radio ads about a case he'd presided over. That may help explain his success.
But there is also another, troubling consideration. On the Friday before the election, Lake, as a Superior Court judge, issued a widely-publicized order in a case that affected the pocketbooks of 80,000 government pensioners in North Carolina.
Lake ruled that the General Assembly had improperly repealed an income tax exemption for government pensions in August 1989 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Lake's decision included an order for the state to refund millions of dollars to those retirees.
The lawsuit has been in court since last February and seems certain to stay in the courts on appeal for months or years to come. In cases of this sort, a trial judge's ruling is merely a starting point, not the end. Yet as of Election Day, the big news in the case was all Lake's, and it was a crowd-pleaser of a decision.
Is it possible that some voters were influenced to deviate from the Democratic to the Republican column on the ballot when they got to Lake's name after reading of his decision in the tax case? Was there some reason other than politics that the ruling came down on Nov. 2 instead of Sept. 2 or Dec. 2? I don't know.
I do know that the great fear as judicial elections become more partisan and competitive is that justice will go on sale. In Texas, the standard worst-case example these days, companies and groups with business before the courts are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into judicial races. If it has become possible here for a judge to tailor and time a decision to serve his own political ends and get away with it, then we're in trouble.
I think it is questions like these that the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission was created to answer.