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Federal Court Upholds Groundbreaking Campaign Finance Reform Law in North Carolina

March 30, 2007

For Immediate Release
Friday, March 30, 2007

Jonathan Rosen or Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452–5637

Federal Court Upholds Groundbreaking Campaign Finance Reform Law in North Carolina
Ruling Upholds Nation’s First Public Financing System for Statewide Judicial Elections

Raleigh – Today, in a ruling with potential implications for judicial elections across the country, a federal judge in North Carolina upheld the nation’s first and only full public financing system for statewide judicial elections, based on the reasoning in his October 2006 order.

The ruling, by Judge W. Earl Britt of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, upholds a groundbreaking campaign finance reform program aimed at taking special interest money out of appellate judicial elections in North Carolina and is expected to spur efforts to enact similar proposals in other states. State legislatures in Illinois, Montana and New Mexico are currently considering full or partial public financing of appellate court elections in their states. Washington State also considered a similar proposal this year.

“Across the country trial lawyers, big business and other special interests are spending big money to elect their favored candidates to some of our state’s highest courts. As a result, we see increasing evidence that voters are losing faith in the notion that justice is really blind,” said Suzanne Novak, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center for Justice. Novak and the Brennan Center defended North Carolina’s law in this case on behalf of North Carolina Common Cause and Ronnie Ansley, a trial attorney from Wake Forest who ran unsuccessfully for the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2004.

“North Carolina’s system is a model for any state seeking to rein in out-of-control judicial campaigns. We hope with today’s ruling state legislatures across the country will decide to follow suit,” continued Novak.

“Today’s decision means that North Carolina will continue to ensure that special interest money stops at the courthouse steps,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina.

In 2002, North Carolina enacted a voluntary full public financing program for candidates running for seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court and the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Under the program, known as the North Carolina Public Campaign Financing Fund, candidates for appellate courts who collect qualifying contributions in amounts ranging from $10 - $500 from at least 350 registered voters receive public funds for their campaign. The program is funded with annual $50 contributions from active members of the North Carolina State Bar and an optional $3 check-off on state income tax returns.

In 2004, 12 of 16 candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court and the North Carolina Court of Appeals (including four of the five winners) opted into the public financing system – forgoing private campaign money beyond their initial qualifying contributions. According to an analysis by the North Carolina State Court system, public funds made up 64% of the financing in those races. In 2006, eight of 12 candidates took part in the Public Campaign Fund, with five of six winners participating in the program.

Four plaintiffs, including two judges – Barbara Jackson, a sitting judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and Wilton R. “Rusty” Duke, a North Carolina Superior Court judge who ran unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court in 2006 – and the North Carolina Right to Life Committee Fund for Independent Political Expenditures (“IEPAC”), and North Carolina Right to Life State Political Action Committee (“SPAC”) sued to strike down the law. The plaintiffs challenged the law’s disclosure requirements, the source of funds for the public financing program, a rule prohibiting any contributions in the 21 days proceeding an election, as well as a provision in the law granting participants in the public financing system extra campaign funds to counter spending by a candidate not participating in the program or an organization engaged in an independent expenditure campaign against the participating candidate or on behalf of their opponent.

In addition to its work in North Carolina, the Brennan Center has successfully defended state public financing laws in Arizona and Maine and is currently defending Connecticut’s public campaign finance program.