More details are coming out about how Art Pope intervened two weeks ago to kill the judicial public financing program. To stop Rep. Jonathan Jordan’s amendment that would have saved the program, it’s now apparent that Pope misled Jordan with a crucial falsehood – some might say a lie, although perhaps Pope was misinformed himself. Jordan’s amendment would have saved the program by keeping the $50 attorney fee that goes into the Public Campaign Fund while letting the $3 taxpayer check-off be repealed. But according to both men, Pope told Jordan that NC courts have ruled the $50 fee could not be used for the public grants for qualifying judicial candidates.
In Pope’s words, he recalls saying: “North Carolina courts have held using compulsory attorney fees for political campaigns to be unconstitutional.” Jordan’s hometown newspaper interviewed him for an in-depth article about what happened and reported, “Meeting with Pope outside the house Chamber, Jordan said, the budget director informed him that the governor wouldn’t accept any public campaign financing, and that use of the $50 attorney fees for that purpose was unconstitutional. Pope cited case law that said the fees could be used only for voter guides, not for campaign financing, Jordan said.”
But here’s the truth as described in a letter in today’s News & Observer by former NC Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Duke Law School Dean Paul Carrington:
Contrary to Art Pope’s June 18 letter “Attorney fees for political campaigns unconstitutional,” the court decision he cites said a fee on attorneys to support public financing for judicial campaigns is not unconstitutional. The court declared that the fee “does not, in and of itself, violate Plaintiff’s Freedom of Speech” and constitutionally promotes “credibility and integrity in the courts” (El-Khouri v. North Carolina). The $50 fee supports a judicial voter guide mailed to N.C. households and funds campaigns of qualifying appellate judicial candidates. The court did say attorneys must have an option to earmark their $50 for the voter guide or judicial campaigns. Most attorneys choose to support the campaigns.
Bottom line: Jordan’s amendment was proper and would have saved the program; but a false claim killed its chance for a fair hearing.