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Supreme Court Will Not Hear Challenge to North Carolina Courts’ Public Finance System

Upheld below, North Carolina provision Reduces Power of Wealthy Special Interests in Judicial Election

November 4, 2008

For Immediate Release

Contact: Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452–5637, (314) 440–9936

Upheld Below, North Carolina Provision Reduces Power of Wealthy Special Interests in Judicial Election

Today, advocates for fair and impartial courts observed a significant victory as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the nation’s first public funding system for judicial elections. The decision bolsters North Carolina’s system for reducing the influence of money from state courts – and efforts to do the same elsewhere - at a time when millions of dollars continue to pour into judicial elections around the country.

“This is an important decision in the battle to protect our elective state courts from the undue influence of wealthy contributors,” said Laura MacCleery, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.  "The Court’s denial preserves an innovative campaign finance system and protects judicial candidates in North Carolina from going hat-in-hand to the very parties and lawyers who may appear before them in court," stated MacCleery.

Opponents had asked the Supreme Court to evaluate the North Carolina program last month, following the Court’s recent decision in Davis v. FEC – even though that case did not address the public financing of judicial campaigns.

As the Brennan Center stated in its legal brief, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision was a thorough evaluation of the program.  It held “that the provisions challenged . . .embody North Carolina’s effort to protect th[e] vital interest in an independent judiciary, [and] are within the limits placed on the state by the First Amendment.”

“Without the very modest and straightforward solution offered by North Carolina’s judicial public funding program, special interest competition for influence with judges could imperil the impartiality of the state’s judges. North Carolina’s citizens today have won a victory and will get to keep their system of public funding,” stated MacCleery.


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.

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 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the case and the three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the dismissal. The opinion may be found here.

The North Carolina program has been popular and greatly reduced the amount of special interest money in recent judicial races. In the 2006 judicial elections, 9 out of 12 candidates on the general election ballot tried to qualify for funds, and 8 succeeded. Democrats, Republicans, men, women, African-Americans, incumbents and challengers participated in the program. According to a report on the system by Democracy North Carolina, judicial candidates in the 2002 general election received 73 percent of their non-family campaign money from attorneys, special-interest PACs, and other political committees. This figure dropped to 14 percent for all candidates in the 2004 general election, which was the first under the new public funding system.

Following this trial run of the North Carolina system for judicial elections, a 2005 poll conducted by American Viewpoint, a Republican polling firm, found that 74 percent of North Carolina voters approved of continuing the system, while only 18 percent opposed its continuation. According to a recent North Carolina Center for Voter Education survey, 80% of voters are concerned about the impact that campaign spending by outside groups has on campaigns for state and local office. 

In addition to its public funding program for State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates, this election year North Carolina is also piloting a public financing program for three of the state’s Council of State seats.

Other public funding programs around the country include Connecticut’s, where 84% of the state’s legislative candidates are participating in the inaugural year of a Clean Elections system. In Arizona, nine of 11 state-wide officials, including Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-Ariz.), have run under the Clean Elections program and in Maine, 84 percent of the state legislature won their offices as Clean Elections candidates. In total, some form of public financing is operating in seven states and two cities.

Visit the Brennan Center Web site for more court documents and background on the case, click here.