Point of View

Financing, fairness and faith in judicial elections

August 4, 2013 

Relying almost exclusively on party-line votes, Republicans in the N.C. legislature recently pushed through sweeping electoral changes. These new rules not only threaten to suppress citizen participation and cast doubt on the democratic legitimacy of future electoral outcomes in North Carolina, but they also have important ramifications for the legitimacy of the state’s judicial system.

Republicans voted to end public financing of candidates running for seats on N.C. Appellate Courts. Since 2004, judicial candidates who demonstrate electoral viability – that is, candidates who have raised between $10 and $500 from at least 350 registered voters, totaling at least $39,450 – have been given access to public funds for the purpose of financing their campaign activities.

The motivation behind this election reform was straightforward: Judges are uniquely entrusted to be fair and impartial in their decisions, and their impartiality is threatened when they depend on campaign contributions from private donors who someday could have an interest in the outcome of a case that comes before them.

Even if private campaign donations do not actually affect a judge’s decisions, the mere appearance of undue influence can undermine trust in the judicial system. An electoral system in which judges routinely court moneyed interests to fund their campaigns sends a message to the public that justice is for sale. Public financing offers a way for prospective judges to publicize their candidacy without weakening public confidence in the judiciary.

It is not obvious why Republicans voted to end public financing. Until now, North Carolina’s public financing system has been widely hailed as a model of judicial election reform, and it is popular among N.C. residents across the political spectrum. For example, a recent 2013 survey shows that 68 percent of state voters support the judicial financing program, which included support from 67 percent of Republican voters.

Our research confirms the existence of a relationship between the source of campaign contributions and public perceptions of judges and the courts. In a survey of North Carolina voters, we asked respondents to read a newspaper article concerning a fictitious N.C. State Supreme Court judge who cast the deciding vote in a case about zoning laws.

Participants received different versions of the news story that were identical except for the details about the judge’s most recent election campaign. Some respondents read a version that contained no information about the judge’s fundraising activities; others read a version that described him as raising money from private donors, and still others read a version that portrayed him as relying on public financing during his last election.

We found that respondents who understood that the judge had raised private contributions reacted more negatively to the scenario. They rated the judge as less fair and impartial, and they predicted other judges would be worse, too, if they were elected the same way. Likewise, these respondents were also more likely to say the verdict in that case should be overturned rather than honored.

Conversely, respondents who read about the judge elected through public financing were significantly more likely to report trusting the verdict, the judge and the courts as a whole. In fact, even if these respondents disagreed with the outcome of the case, they did not recommend challenging the decision so long as they knew the judge received mostly public financing.

Altogether, our findings suggest that a public financing system will confer greater legitimacy to even unpopular or controversial judicial outcomes, just as its supporters predicted.

Another implication of our studies is that the judicial public finance system should be strengthened, not ended: More public money, not less, should be made available to allow candidates to keep pace with spending from outside groups. In the 2012 electoral contest between N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby and challenger Sam Ervin, for example, spending by groups unaffiliated with either judicial candidate swamped direct spending by the candidates themselves, perhaps even tipping the outcome of that election.

Finally, since our research shows that public confidence in the courts is bolstered by awareness that judges rely on public, not private, money, we believe it important that the state also spend money to explain public financing rules if they are restored in the future.

All of this adds up to a simple conclusion: If the goal of Republicans’ recent reforms was to instill greater public faith in a fair and impartial judiciary, all indications are they got it backward.

Michael Cobb is an associate professor of political science and James Zink is an assistant professor of political science at N.C. State University.

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