In 2004, North Carolina established the nation’s first effective public financing program for judicial elections. The Judicial Public Campaign Fund addresses the inherent conflict of judges raising big money from attorneys who appear in their courts. It provides an alternative source of campaign money for candidates for the NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and it’s voluntary program – for candidates and the public.
Judicial candidates agree to limit their spending and meet certain public trust requirements to qualify for a public grant to run their campaign. North Carolinians volunteer to designate $3 to the fund by checking a box on their NC income tax form. The fund also pays for the publishing and distribution of a judicial voting guide, which is the only way many voters get information about the judges on their ballots.
North Carolina’s Public Campaign Fund has dramatically reduced the special interest money judicial candidates receive. And it’s popular! Eighty percent of judicial candidates – Republicans, Democrats, men, women, whites, people of color – participated in the program between 2004 and 2012. It’s a national model for clean elections.
Unfortunately, Gov. McCrory’s recently released budget calls for repealing the Public Campaign Fund. Art Pope, the state’s Budget Director, has long opposed this clean elections program. Last year, Pope used money from his Variety Stores (Roses, Maxway, etc.) to help groups that effectively bought a seat on the state Supreme Court for $2 million-plus.
State legislators should save the Public Campaign fund as part of their pledge to protect the integrity of our elections and restore confidence in government. Otherwise, the state will take a leap back to a time when special interests ran roughshod over the idea of an independent judiciary.
For a profile of the Judicial Public Financing Program, see this release by Democracy North Carolina.