With one laugh line at a campaign event, Paul Newby, the only registered Republican on North Carolina’s Supreme Court, managed to inject the worst kind of partisan politics into the state’s highest court, criticize all six of his fellow justices and at least hint at a link to President Donald Trump’s recent racist “send them back” rhetoric.

In a speech in Wake County, Newby told a mostly Republican crowd to “imagine seven ‘AOCs’ on the state Supreme Court. Well, folks, we got six. It’s six to one.”

AOC, of course, is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of four young, Democratic women of color in Congress at the center of a flap stirred up by Trump’s tweets and comments. He said the women, who are left-leaning, hate America and should “go back and fix the countries they came from.” Ocasio-Cortez came from the Bronx, and two of the three others also were born in the U.S.

Maybe Newby didn’t mean to associate himself with that racism. But he did mean to tap into Republican efforts to make those four women — known as “the Squad” — the face of the Democratic Party, even though they’ve had run-ins with fellow Democrats. He must have thought branding all the Democrats on the state Supreme Court as “AOCs” would help him and other Republicans in the coming election.

Newby is running for the chief justice seat held by Cheri Beasley, who was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper and is the first African American woman to hold that post. Newby thought he should have gotten that appointment and criticized Cooper for being political.

Although not calling his colleague Anita Earls by name, Newby singled her out by referring to last year’s heavily partisan election. “In 2018,” he said, “the left put $1.5 million to get their ‘AOC’ person on the court.” Newby suggested that all the other justices are activists who “want to cause social change.”

Maybe Newby thought that it was OK to call out his fellow justices in front of a sympathetic crowd. But word got out, as it always does, when someone sent a recording to WRAL-TV in Raleigh.

Paul Shumaker, Newby’s political adviser, fielded questions by saying it’s not unusual for political candidates to point out the “ideological differences between themselves and others.” That’s not new to the political process, he said.

But it is relatively new and disturbing as a part of the process of electing justices to North Carolina’s highest court.

It’s a trend that’s only to be expected after the Republican-dominated legislature voted to make elections to all appellate courts partisan again. They had been nonpartisan since 2004.

In the past, judicial candidates mostly stayed above the fray, presenting themselves through forums and evaluations and endorsements by the state Bar Association and other groups.

Legislators who pushed to attach party affiliations to judicial candidates’ names said the change would give voters useful information. But, even if judges in this state are elected rather than appointed, the judiciary is still supposed to be the branch of government that’s independent of politics. Political affiliation should have nothing to do with whether a candidate is fit to be a judge.

In this era when politics are so polarized, it’s especially bad to have partisan judicial elections. Newby’s performance in Wake County takes judicial campaigning to a new low. What’s next? Justices whose rulings are based on partisan politics, not the law?

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