Move to end public financing could undermine voter confidence in the courts
For nearly a decade, statewide judicial candidates in North Carolina have had the option of using public financing to run their campaigns. Doing so saved them from the money chase normal politicians engage in, freeing them from having to beg attorneys and special interest groups for campaign cash.
As a result, the citizens of North Carolina can have more confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judicial branch. Unfortunately, this extremely popular and effective program is currently under threat of elimination by the N.C. General Assembly.
Lawmakers in Raleigh are proposing to eliminate this innovative program that has been remarkably successful over the years at doing exactly what it was designed to do -- remove special interest money from our judicial races. Even better, it has done so at an extremely low cost to taxpayers. Not only is the program voluntary for judicial candidates, but it's also funded by a voluntary check-off on state tax returns and a surcharge on attorneys' fees.
So why are some officials proposing to kill the program?
It's not because it's unpopular with judges and judicial candidates. Since the program was first implemented in 2004, 80 percent of all eligible judicial candidates have participated in the public financing program. And during last year's election, all eight candidates ran for office using the program, including Justice Paul Newby, who won the lone race for N.C. Supreme Court in 2012.
In addition, 14 of the 15 sitting judges on the N.C. Court of Appeals recently sent a letter to leaders in the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory urging them to preserve the program. Judges don't want to be normal politicians, and they shouldn't have to raise money like them.
It's also not because it's unpopular with voters. A recent survey from the N.C. Center for Voter Education revealed that 68 percent of voters in the state support judicial public financing. That includes over 65 percent support from Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters alike. Former governors from both parties even support it.
And it's not because it's ineffective. In 2002, before public financing was available to judicial candidates, 73 percent of non-family money raised by judicial candidates came from attorneys, special interest groups and political committees. Once the program was available in 2004, that number dropped to a mere 14 percent. So the program is working.
None of this measures the intangible benefits of the program though, and that is citizen confidence in the courts. It is absolutely essential to our democracy that people believe our court system to be fair and impartial, but that perception can be clouded if special interest money were to dominate a judicial campaign. Public financing has helped North Carolina avoid these concerns for the past 10 years, and it's not time to risk it now.
Sadly, some in the General Assembly want to do away with judicial public financing. This ill-advised idea has the potential to undo one of the most successful and popular government reform initiatives of the past decade -- one that is so effective it's been used as a model for other states. In fact, West Virginia just made permanent a judicial public financing system based in large part on the innovative model we created here in North Carolina.
It's not too late for leaders in the General Assembly to reverse course and preserve this vital program. Eliminating judicial public financing would set a horrible precedent and undermine public confidence in our courts.
Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping citizens fully participate in democracy.