Restore Public Financing for Judicial Campaigns: N.C. Opinion

NORTH-CAROLINA-FLAG-300x224The 2014 North Carolina Supreme Court election is unprecedented in the past 15 years for the raw political power and record big money involved, including more than $3 million raised by the candidates for four seats, writes an opinion columnist who urges a return to public financing of judicial campaigns.

“This is happening across the country,” adds Tim White in his Fayetteville Observer column. “Tens of millions of dollars are being poured into court contests as political influence groups try to buy judicial seats. And the very same people doing the pouring may someday later show up before the judges they helped buy. Those judges are human, and the possibility of money turning the tide of a crucial case is a chilling specter.”

North Carolina’s legislature killed the state’s public financing program for judicial campaigns last year. Now, White says, PAC money and advocacy groups’ “dark money” are flowing into the election contest, and the case for restoring public (more…)

Editorials Mourn End of N.C. Public Financing for Judicial Races

North_Carolina_quarter,_reverse_side,_2001As this year’s election for the North Carolina Supreme Court begins warming up, more editorial boards are speaking out to mourn the legislature’s killing the state’s pioneering public financing program for judicial elections. A recent study found that the program had a “powerful impact” (see Gavel Grab) while it was operative.

A Rocky Mount Telegram editorial said, “Public financing for judicial contests offered a bit of sensibility in the face of mudslinging. Now, it appears, that breath of sanity is gone as well.”

A Wilmington Star-News editorial said it was a good program, now gone: “But the Honorables decided instead to return to the old system, in which judicial candidates solicit donations from private donors, many of whom have a vested interest in court decisions. Honest judges are not influenced by such donations, at least not consciously, but even the appearance of a conflict of interest can taint public perception of an important judicial ruling.” (more…)

Moyers Report: Death of N.C. Public Financing Part of Rightward March

A rightward march by North Carolina’s legislature in 2013, including its killing a popular and successful program for public financing of judicial elections, continues to capture national news media attention and analysis.

The public financing program was a pioneering reform to protect courts from special interest influence, and it became a model for other states.

A Moyers and Co. report on what it called the “North Carolina takeover” as a result of a Republican supermajority in the legislature and a Republican governor attributed the death of public financing of judicial elections in significant part to opposition by Art Pope, the state budget director. He has been described as the “architect of the conservative takeover.” (more…)

Editorial: Concern About Big-Spending N.C. Judicial Elections

Not only will the stakes be high when four justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court are expected to seek reelection this year, but the legislature’s rewriting some laws could also contribute to runaway spending on the court elections.

A (Greensboro) News-Record editorial raises this specter in casting a dubious eye on the new laws and their impact. The headline accompanying the editorial? “Big bucks judges.”

The legislature eliminated a pioneering public financing program for judicial elections and raised individual limits on donations to judicial campaigns from $1,000 to $5,000 per election. About the changes, the editorial asks:

“Why did the legislature open to door to greater big-money influence in judicial races? Why were these changes tucked into a sweeping election reform bill highlighted by a voter ID requirement that drew almost all the attention? (more…)

Another Try Ahead for Update to Public Financing in New Mexico?

In April, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed legislation intended to update a voluntary system of public financing for elections of appellate court judges (see Gavel Grab). Now advocates for public financing say they are making headway in addressing the governor’s concerns about the legislation’s constitutionality.

“We have answered her concerns, and are working to gain her support,” Viki Harrison, executive director for Common Cause New Mexico and Tam Doan, research director for Public Campaign, write in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed. Public Campaign and the national Common Cause organization are Justice at Stake partner groups.

The vetoed legislation was drafted in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, from 2011. The high court struck down a provision in Arizona’s law that furnished extra taxpayer dollars to participating candidates when privately funded foes or independent groups spent more. It was called a “trigger funds” provision.

The legislation was intended to set up a small donor matching system. Under it, candidates who participated would have gotten an initial public financing grant and after that, would have received a 4-1 match for donations of up to $100.

JAS: West Virginia Public Financing Law a 'Model for the Nation'

A prominent West Virginia attorney says the public has lost its faith in fair and impartial courts, but “[i]t doesn’t have to be that way,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg writes in a Charleston Gazette op-ed.

Brandenburg spotlights West Virginia’s adoption this year of a permanent law for the public financing of judicial elections, after he mentions an earlier instance of runaway campaign spending that “gave the courts a black eye in West Virginia and beyond” and resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Caperton v. Massey:

“Public financing isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t fix every problem with judicial elections.  But it does at least one very important thing:  It allows judicial candidates to opt in to a system that protects them from having to solicit money from the same lawyers, businesses and other parties who may appear before them in court. (more…)

Commentary: Sifting Through Numerous Acts of N.C. Legislature

Fair courts in North Carolina are facing challenges from multiple directions as a result of action in this year’s legislature.

Gavel Grab has reported extensively about the legislature’s elimination of a public financing program for judicial elections. Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress says in a ThinkProgress blog post that there’s more: the legislature voted to cut back on campaign finance disclosure requirements. He reports about an election changes bill approved by the legislature:

“The bill also eliminates a corporate independent spending disclosure rule and a requirement that independent spenders running ads from May to September of an election year must disclose their donors.”

Corriher also touches on changes judicial discipline procedures that the legislature approved. (The North Carolina Bar Association has urged a veto by Gov. Pat McCrory.) Corriher says the changes “will make the justices less accountable for violating rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest from undermining the integrity of the judiciary.” (more…)

Political Scientists Say Survey Backs Value of Public Financing

Public trust in fair and impartial courts is increased when there is “awareness that judges rely on public, not private, money” in their election bids, according to research cited by two political scientists at North Carolina State University.

In their (Raleigh) News & Observer commentary, Michael Cobb and James Zink discuss their public opinion research in lamenting the state legislature’s action this year to kill a pioneering state program for public financing of judicial elections.

When respondents were asked to read a fictitious news article about a state Supreme Court judge who cast the deciding vote in a controversial zoning law case, they were presented with varying versions. One gave no information about the judge’s campaign funding, one depicted him as relying on public financing and one portrayed him as relying on private campaign funding. (more…)

NC Legislators Vote to Change Judicial Selection, Repeal Public Financing

North Carolina’s legislature keeps passing legislation to change the way judges are selected.

After legislators passed a budget bill last week that ends funding for public financing of appellate judicial elections, a pioneering reform to protect courts from special interest influence, the House gave final approval  to a major voting changes bill. It formally repeals the public financing law, according to a WRAL news report.

At Huffington Post, Adam Smith of Public Campaign wrote, “The repeal of a popular public financing program defies common sense, but it also defies the people who have actually used it. In June, 14 of the 15 members of the Court of Appeals urged the legislature to maintain the system.”

In addition, the Republican-controlled legislature voted separately to  give the governor more authority and let him appoint whomever he chooses for District Court judgeships, eliminating a requirement that such vacancies must be filled from lists of candidates chosen by the local bar. (more…)

Final Budget in N.C. Would Kill Public Financing Program

North Carolina’s legislature approved on Wednesday a $20.6 billion budget and sent it to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature. The final version, like initial versions passed in each chamber, would kill the state’s pioneering public financing program for judicial elections, according to The Voter Update, an online magazine of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.

Justice at Stake was among groups lending support to preserving the popular program. After both legislative chambers passed respective budget plans that would effectively kill the program, JAS Acting Executive Director Liz Seaton said:

“[T]he real losers will be North Carolina residents, who made it clear in a recent poll that they are disinclined to support legislators who favor a bigger role for money in judicial elections. Now the people face the loss of a clean-elections program that helped insulate their judges from the influence of moneyed special interests. The politicians who decided to eliminate this program are disregarding the will of the people they were elected to represent, as well as ignoring the potentially disastrous effects of large sums of private money that will inevitably flow into the state’s justice system.”

The N.C. Center for Voter Education is a JAS partner organization.