RALEIGH — The legislature is considering revamping the way North Carolina selects its high-court judges this session, including possibly scrapping the states 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 nations 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 Carolinas 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 years 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.
Thats 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. Its 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 heres one area where we agree: North Carolinas 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 doesnt happen with the nonpartisan. You could easily have a bad person with a wonderful name being elected.