Gavel Grab

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.

Cobb and Zink write that “respondents who read about the judge elected through public financing were significantly more likely to report trusting the verdict, the judge and the courts as a whole. In fact, even if these respondents disagreed with the outcome of the case, they did not recommend challenging the decision so long as they knew the judge received mostly public financing.”

Regarding the legislature’s eliminating public financing of judicial elections, in a measure signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, the authors conclude, “If the goal of Republicans’ recent reforms was to instill greater public faith in a fair and impartial judiciary, all indications are they got it backward.”

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