Original posted in The Charlotte Observer.
Voters and judges in North Carolina agree that justice should not be for sale. Unfortunately, the legislature looks poised to eliminate a successful program that helps judicial candidates say no to special interest money.
North Carolina elects its judges. Judicial races cost money, and not surprisingly, the lawyers and parties who regularly appear in court are also the most likely to contribute to judges’ campaigns, creating troubling conflicts of interest for judges and hurting public confidence in the judicial process. After North Carolina started seeing million-dollar judicial races in the early 2000s, the state came up with an innovative solution – a public financing system where candidates can opt out of the money race and still run competitive campaigns.
To qualify, candidates have to show they have broad public support and must agree to limit their fundraising. In exchange, they receive public funding – about $240,000 for Supreme Court candidates and $160,000 for candidates for the Court of Appeals. The program gives would-be judges the resources to run competitive races without relying on special interest dollars.
It has been a big success.
In 2002, the last year without public financing, 73 percent of campaign funds for judicial candidates came from attorneys and special interest groups. After public financing was introduced in 2004, that number dropped to 14 percent. Last year, every single appellate candidate opted to receive public financing.
Voters like the system too. In a 2011 poll by the Justice at Stake Campaign and the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, 94 percent of N.C. voters said that they believe campaign contributions have some sway on a judge’s decision, and 79 percent believe it is a very serious problem when judges receive campaign contributions from a party with a case pending before the court. According to the poll, 48 percent of voters believe public financing reduces the potential for corruption in the courts.
Despite the program’s successes, bills in the House and Senate seek to eliminate public financing. Proponents argue that public financing is not a good use of taxpayer dollars and that cutting funding will save the state money. The governor and legislature should reject this misguided effort.
The total cost of public financing is a minuscule portion of the state budget, with funding coming primarily from a $50 surcharge on attorney dues to the State Bar and a voluntary $3 check-off box on the state income tax form. More importantly, the program is a vital tool for protecting North Carolina’s courts, helping ensure that judges are accountable to the law and the constitution, and not to the highest bidder.
When the legislature introduced public financing in 2002, it recognized that voters and judicial candidates need protection “from the detrimental effects of increasingly large amounts of money being raised and spent to influence the outcome of elections.” These concerns have not changed – in fact, they have only become greater as special interest spending on judicial races has skyrocketed.
Since its introduction, the public financing program has helped candidates avoid the wild fundraising that used to characterize the state’s judicial races. The program should be preserved and expanded, not eliminated.