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Federal Appeals Court Upholds North Carolina’s Judicial Public Funding Law

Fourth Circuit Panel Affirms Dismissal: State citizens concerned about fair and impartial courts celebrated a major victory today in their defense of the state’s landmark public funding program for appellate court candidates.

May 2, 2008

For Immediate Release

Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, 646–452–5637

Unanimous Fourth Circuit Panel Affirms Dismissal of Constitutional Challenge

North Carolina—State citizens concerned about fair and impartial courts celebrated a major victory today in their defense of the state’s landmark public funding program for appellate court candidates.  The North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act gives participating judicial candidates a lump-sum grant of public funds as well as limited funds to match high spending by the candidates’ privately-financed opposition, including opponents and independent groups.  A trial court previously had dismissed challenges to the matching funds provisions, as well as reporting requirements and a 21-day ban on contributions needed to implement those provisions, and the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the dismissal.

“This is an extremely important decision for the battle to protect our elective state courts from the undue influence of money,” said Deborah Goldberg, Democracy Program Director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which served as lead counsel for intervenors in the case.  ”This ruling preserves a campaign finance system that protects appellate judicial candidates in North Carolina from going hat in hand to the very parties and lawyers who appear before them in court," stated Goldberg.   

In 2002, North Carolina became the first state to enact a voluntary public financing program for appellate judicial campaigns. In 2005, two potential judicial candidates and two political committees filed a complaint in federal court charging that the State’s public financing law generally, and some provisions in particular, violated the First Amendment and the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Opponents of the law argued that, by providing additional matching funds, the law discouraged spending by non-participating candidates and their independent supporters.

The Brennan Center and the State of North Carolina won dismissal of the challenge on March 30, 2007, and the plaintiffs appealed.  On December 7, 2007, the Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the case-North Carolina Right to Life Committee Fund for Independent Political Expenditures  v. Leake, No. 07–1454-and the three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the dismissal today.  The opinion may be found here.

Relying on extensive precedent from around the country, and particularly on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, the Fourth Circuit found that North Carolina’s disbursement of matching funds to voluntary participants in the public financing system “furthers, not abridges, pertinent First Amendment values.”  Likewise, the court found that Act’s reporting and disclosure requirements “advance” the state’s important interests in “providing the electorate with information” and in “deterring actual corruption” and the appearance thereof. 

Finally, the Court recognized that:

The concern for promoting and protecting the impartiality and independence of the judiciary is not a new one; it dates back at least to our nation’s founding, when Alexander Hamilton wrote that “the complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential” to our form of government. … We conclude that the provisions challenged today, which embody North Carolina’s effort to protect this vital interest in an independent judiciary, are within the limits placed on the state by the First Amendment.

The State of North Carolina is the lead defendant in the case.  The Brennan Center is joined as counsel for the intervenors-defendants by James G. Exum, Jr., and Manning A. Connors of Smith Moore LLP in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The intervenors are Common Cause North Carolina and James R. Ansley, a candidate in the 2004 North Carolina judicial elections.

Three amicus briefs were filed in support of the system.  The Campaign Legal Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of ten organizations around the country concerned about judicial independence.  The law firm of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, LLP filed an amicus brief on behalf of eight former North Carolina judges.  An amicus brief on behalf of Democracy North Carolina was filed by Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky and Anita S. Earls.

The Brennan Center has successfully defended state public financing laws in Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine. Click here for more information.