GOP wants to revamp way judges are elected

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 9, 2013 

  • Other election action

    On Tuesday, the House Elections Committee:

    • Unanimously approved a constitutional amendment repealing the literacy test for voting. The test was passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 1899 and approved by the voters in 1900 as means to exclude black voters. It was outlawed in 1964 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. But a voter referendum to repeal the literacy test in 1970 failed. Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander, the son of a prominent Charlotte civil rights leader, spoke in favor of the measure in committee with several Republican lawmakers standing at his side.

    • Passed on a voice vote, apparently unanimously, to end a volunteer taxpayer $3 check-off program that helps subsidize the political parties. Gov. Pat McCrory had recommended the ending of funding.

    • Agreed to send to a study committee a proposal to make it easier for third-party candidates, such as Libertarians, to get on the ballot by requiring 11,000 signatures rather than 89,000.

  • More information

— The legislature is considering revamping the way North Carolina selects its high-court judges this session, including possibly scrapping the state’s pioneering system of public financing and moving to partisan elections.

The efforts come as Republicans – in complete control in Raleigh for the first time since the 1800s – seek to put their stamp on the judiciary.

On the agenda is undoing a Democratic-passed program that made North Carolina the nation’s first state to begin a voluntary program of public financing. The law was enacted after other states began experiencing high-priced political shoot-outs between big business and trial lawyers in its court elections.

Since its adoption in 2002, New Mexico, Wisconsin and, earlier this year, West Virginia have adopted legislation based on North Carolina’s law.

But Republican Gov. Pat McCrory proposed abolishing the program in his budget recommendations to the legislature. There is considerable sentiment among GOP lawmakers for following suit, although on Wednesday Rep. David Lewis of Dunn suggested an alternative measure designed to keep public financing through 2016.

“Judicial candidates benefit from not relying so heavily on fundraising,” said Lewis, who is chairman of the House Elections Committee, which will consider the bill next week. He acknowledged his proposal “has a long way to go.”

There is even stronger sentiment among Republicans for moving from nonpartisan election of judges to elections where candidates run as Democrats or Republicans.

The judicial public financing law passed the legislature in 2002 along partisan lines, clearing the House 57-54 and the Senate 34-12. The same bill also removed party labels from judicial races – a move that most observers believe helped Democratic judicial candidates.

Supreme, Appeals courts

Under the law, the state provides money to candidates for the seven-member state Supreme Court and the 15-member N.C. Court of Appeals – if they agree to limit their campaign expenditures. To qualify, candidates must receive donations of between $10 and $500 from at least 350 registered voters.

The state funding comes from a $3 voluntary check-off on the N.C. income tax form and a $50 surcharge on dues paid by attorneys. Both bring in $1.1 million each.

During last year’s election, all the appellate court candidates participated. Supreme Court candidates received $240,100, and Court of Appeals candidates received $164,400.

State Sen. Pete Brunstetter a Winston-Salem attorney, who is co-chairman of the Senate elections committee, said the GOP wants to discontinue the funding because it “limits what judges can spend in statewide races and virtually guarantees anonymity.”

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex attorney, said recent U.S. Supreme Court cases have rendered judicial public financing laws “impractical.”

That’s because a federal court has ruled unconstitutional a provision in the 2002 law that allowed “rescue funds” – extra money for a candidate who is outspent by third parties or an opponent who is not participating in the program.

“Without rescue funds, a candidate running for judge is just helpless unless they raise enough money to make a difference,” Stam argues. “It’s just a complete waste of money both for the state and the candidates.”

In the battle for control of the Supreme Court last year, for example, outside groups spent $2.5 million on behalf of incumbent Paul Newby to make sure the court remained in Republican hands.

Former governors unite

Supporters of public financing have formed a coalition of 40 groups and started a petition to save the funding.

“We have a lot of bi-partisan support in the community,” said Melissa Price Kromm, coalition director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections. “I think the legislature is taking note of that, realizing that they can either have a clean court system or they can have a system where big money controls our judiciary.”

Two former governors, Democrat Jim Hunt and Republican Jim Holshouser, have co-written letters and articles to North Carolina newspapers defending public financing.

“As former Republican and Democratic governors, we often disagree,” they wrote. “But here’s one area where we agree: North Carolina’s court must be protected from the corrosive influence of special-interest campaign money.”

They say the program has been successful and that “it frees judges from the endless money chase and prevents the appearance that justice is for sale.”

Supporters have released a public opinion poll by SurveyUSA which found that 68 percent of North Carolina voters favor judicial public financing, with 23 percent opposed. (The Civitas Institute released a poll showing opposition to the program, but it grouped judges with Council of State members, and described the money as “taxpayer funds” which is only a partial description of voluntary tax check-off money.)

Making elections partisan

The Republican legislature also seems likely to change nonpartisan appellate elections back to partisan elections.

Stam, who had been one of the chief recruiters of GOP judicial candidates, said that when judicial elections were partisan, he looked for the best candidates. He said once elections became nonpartisan, voters based their selections on familiar names and gender.

Stam said that moving to partisan elections would provide voters with more information – party identification – and would also allow parties to screen candidates.

“In the primaries we got rid of some duds, and I know the Democrats got rid of some duds,” Stam said. “That doesn’t happen with the nonpartisan. You could easily have a bad person with a wonderful name being elected.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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