N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson took a controversial stand, and the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with her. Takaaki Iwabu 2007 News & Observer file photo
N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson took a controversial stand, and the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with her. Takaaki Iwabu 2007 News & Observer file photo

O-Pinion

Conversations about issues affecting our city, region and country.

O-Pinion

She was portrayed as soft on sex offenders. Now the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously backs her up

By The Observer editorial board

June 20, 2017 11:44 AM

Editor’s note: We published this staff editorial on March 5. We think it’s worth re-reading after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided unanimously with Robin Hudson and against the majority on the N.C. Supreme Court in the Packingham case:

Robin Hudson could have gotten smeared for siding with sex offender Lester Packingham. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to vindicate her – and remind us all of the dangers of a politicized judiciary.

Hudson, an N.C. Supreme Court justice, was in fact smeared when she dissented in a separate case in 2010 involving child molesters. In her 2014 re-election bid, Hudson faced a half-million dollars worth of TV attack ads from special interests that twisted that dissent and portrayed her as soft on sex offenders.

It was a real threat to her career, but she had made the decision on principle, then survived the political onslaught.

Then, a little over a year ago, she was faced with a similar conundrum with the Packingham case. The N.C. Supreme Court debated whether North Carolina’s law banning sex offenders from being on social media was constitutional. The majority upheld the law. Hudson dissented, saying it was unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.

It was a risky move in this political day and age, because it could again make her appear soft on sex offenders, just as the earlier dissent led outsiders to portray her that way.

Now, it seems Hudson was right on the N.C. social media law. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Monday. Packingham had been convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 2002. He received a suspended jail sentence and stayed clean until 2010, when he was arrested under the social media law for writing a post on Facebook celebrating that his traffic tickets had been dismissed.

A majority on the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday appeared ready to side with Hudson and strike down the law and the N.C. court’s majority. Six justices expressed concerns about the law. They did so on the grounds that it is overly broad and violates the offender’s First Amendment rights beyond what’s needed to pursue the state’s interest of protecting children. It’s likely that at least five justices will vote to overturn it.

Whatever one thinks of sex offenders and social media, the case and the one before it point to the courage it takes for a justice to make a ruling that might be legally correct but politically unpopular. The U.S. Supreme Court, with its lifetime tenure, is protected from such pressures, but elected N.C. Supreme Court justices are not.

It helps that Hudson doesn’t face reelection for 5 more years. But the danger is that justices, who are supposed to be inoculated from politics, could instead allow political calculations to sway their legal reasoning. With millions of dollars of special interest money now flowing into Supreme Court elections each cycle, justices take a risk every time they vote in a way that could be construed as soft on crime, regardless of the legal details.

The legislature’s current move to make district and superior court races partisan would make it even more difficult for judges to rule on principles, not politics. We appreciate judges, like Hudson, who manage to do just that.