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The Fate of Judicial Public Financing

By Katie Sparrow

RALEIGH - Of all the branches in government, the judiciary elicits special reverence in the court of public opinion. Set apart from the partisan squabbles and political posturing of legislative and executive officials, judges have a magnified responsibility to be impartial and objective, handing down decisions based on the letter of the law. 

How judges come into public service varies by state – appointments, partisan and nonpartisan elections, and retention voting are all systems found across the country. North Carolina is one of 22 states that hold competitive elections for judicial office and, if bills filed in the state legislature this past week are enacted into law, we may become one of only eight states that place party labels on our judges.

Since 2002, judicial elections in North Carolina have been nonpartisan. Admittedly, political leanings are often readily evident even if they aren’t explicitly listed on the ballot – candidates’ comments and resumes may lend enough clues to state the obvious. And political parties typically endorse a slate of their preferred candidates for the courts.

Ideally, political labels would be cast aside for judicial offices, but it’s the fine print of these recent bills that cause the most concern – the gutting of judicial campaign financing.

North Carolina’s Judicial Campaign Reform Act has been in place for a decade, creating a public campaign fund for candidates running for the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals. Qualified candidates have received upwards of $240,000 in public funds to run for office in contested elections, financed by a voluntary $3 check-off option on the state income tax form and by State Bar fees paid by attorneys.

Why is this important? With the program, judicial candidates have the option to rely on public funds rather than campaign contributions to get elected. By eliminating outside influence from special interests, the judiciary’s impartiality is that much more secure. The likelihood of a judge being handed a case affecting big campaign donors diminishes, and elections are placed squarely in the hands of the voter.

If public financing is not an option, judicial candidates will be left having to raise money from the very groups and individuals that may one day stand before them in court. That prospect profoundly troubles state voters and could severely damage public confidence in our justice system.

A 2011 poll from the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education and Justice At Stake found that an overwhelming 94 percent of North Carolina voters believe campaign contributions have some sway on a judge’s decision, including 43 percent who say campaign donations can greatly affect a ruling.

When it comes to North Carolina’s first-in-the-nation system of public financing for judicial elections, 49 percent of voters say they would be less likely to support a legislative candidate who wants to eliminate the program. Only 20 percent of voters say they would be more likely to favor a candidate who sought to end the program. 

That trend holds across party lines, with 45 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents saying they would be less likely to cast a ballot for legislative candidates who wish to eliminate the judicial public financing program.

According to the poll, 48 percent of voters say that public campaign financing reduces the potential for corruption in the courts. Just 25 percent say the program makes no difference.

Special interest influence may never be completely eliminated. But preserving North Carolina’s judicial campaign finance program will help protect the state from distorted elections. It will keep judges focused on public service and not campaign dollars, and should be seriously reconsidered before being sent to the chopping block.

Katie Sparrow is director of policy & outreach for the N.C. Center for Voter Education.