Regular SizeMedium SizeLarge Size Resize Text
Bookmark and Share

Say 'Yes' to Protecting the Integrity of N.C. Courts

By Brent Laurenz

RALEIGH - Tax season isn’t usually the favorite time of year for most North Carolinians. Even if we get a refund after completing our taxes, we still have to go through the hassle of tracking down documents, filling out the correct forms and making sure we get them sent off before the deadline.

While all of that may be true, tax season also affords citizens the chance to support good government and a fair court system.

It may be easy to overlook, but on every North Carolina income tax form citizens are given the choice of supporting the N.C. Public Campaign Fund. The check-off option asks if you want to designate $3 of your taxes for “voter education materials and for candidates who accept spending limits.”

Marking “yes” doesn’t increase your taxes or reduce your refund. It simply earmarks $3 of the taxes you are already paying and specifically places the amount into a fund that helps protect the integrity of our judicial elections.

By checking the box, citizens are supporting our first-in-the-nation program that allows candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals to reject special interest money. If they agree to strict fundraising and spending limits, and raise qualifying contributions from at least 350 registered voters giving $10-$500 each, these judicial candidates then qualify for a public grant to fund the rest of their campaign.

The beauty of the program is that once these candidates for the bench raise their qualifying funds and receive the public grant, they don’t have to do any more fundraising. Unlike candidates for governor or the General Assembly, judicial candidates can then spend 100 percent of their time speaking directly to voters about why they are running for the court and why they are the most qualified to serve, instead of being stuck on the phone in the back room of some office, pleading for campaign donations.

The system was set up to prevent judicial candidates from having to raise money from lawyers and interest groups that might stand before them in court one day. By freeing judges from the money chase, citizens don’t have to worry when they appear in court about who funded a particular judge and if that will impact his or her decision in the case. Simply put, the N.C. Public Campaign Fund is designed to preserve the fairness of the court system.

Since the program’s inception it has seen broad participation from a diverse range of candidates. In all, 80 percent of appellate-court candidates have used the program since it began in 2004. Last year all eight eligible candidates participated.

The program also funds a voter guide that is mailed to every household in North Carolina with a registered voter. The guide provides important nonpartisan information on the election and the candidates running for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals to help voters make their decision before going to the polls.

Judicial candidates are not normal politicians and they should not be treated like normal candidates, especially when it comes to raising money. Candidates for the bench can’t take positions on hot-button issues and have to be much more sensitive to impartiality than executive branch or legislative candidates, which is why in North Carolina we offer candidates for our highest courts an alternative model with public financing.

So when you fill out your state tax form this year, consider supporting the N.C. Public Campaign Fund. Remember, marking “yes” won’t affect your taxes or refund in any way and you’ll be helping to preserve the integrity of our courts.

Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.