NC should restore public funding for judicial elections

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Bob Hunter and Abe Jones are pitted against each other in a tough election for a seat on North Carolina’s Court of Appeals. Each would likely bring a different approach and legal perspective to the bench than the other, but both agree on at least one issue critical to the integrity of our courts: North Carolina should reinstate its system of publicly financed judicial elections to help ensure our judges are free from any outside pressure from big campaign donors.

For nearly a decade North Carolina enjoyed a widely popular and effective election system that gave state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates limited funds to run competitive campaigns without having to solicit money from special interests who may later appear before them in court. In 2013, Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature eliminated the program over the objections of business and civic leaders, former governors, a dozen former presidents of the State Bar Association, the American Bar Association and hundreds of other public leaders.

The result has been unsurprising and follows a troubling trend threatening fair and impartial courts in states around the country. In 2014, the first North Carolina Supreme Court election without public financing since 2002 saw candidates spend more than $6 million on top of another $2 million spent by special interest groups and political parties. That money funded some of the nastiest political attack ads in the state’s history. Justice for All, with funding from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national super PAC funded by corporations and wealthy individuals to elect Republicans to state office, spent $900,000 on an ad falsely accusing North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson of siding with child molesters in the courtroom.

A growing body of research has documented the negative effects all of this campaign spending can have on court decisions after Election Day. The “soft on crime” ads run against Justice Hudson are particularly troubling. A 2015 study found that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court elections, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants.

Several studies have also shown that the more campaign contributions from business interests justices receive, the more likely they are to vote for business litigants appearing before them in court.

This is not how our judiciary was designed to work. Judges should rule based on the law, Constitution and the facts in the case, not to appease the special interests funding their campaigns or to deter the special interests that may otherwise fund nasty attack ads against them. If our state is going to continue electing judges, we need strong protections, like our successful public financing program, against judicial bias.

This year’s elections have not yet experienced quite the level of special interest spending we saw in 2014. But “yet” may be the operative word there. During the primaries the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce spent $450,000 on an ad supporting Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds. With less than four weeks until Election Day the Chamber may soon try to tilt the scales in favor of Edmunds again. North Carolinians will be left to wonder whether our courts are for sale. Judges understand how damaging the public’s lack of confidence in the integrity of their decisions can be, which is why Hunter and Jones are right to call for publicly financed campaigns.

To be sure, our system of public financing judicial elections was not perfect since, with or without the program, judges will still have to contend with outside groups spending hundreds of thousands or millions on ads for and against them. But when the program was in place, 80 percent of candidates participated and were able to run competitive campaigns without creating potential conflicts of interest down the road.

In the long-term we need a constitutional amendment or a new U.S. Supreme Court that allows common-sense limits on how much special interest groups can spend in elections.

Let’s hope our governor and legislature are listening to the judges who have to run in the current system and spare us from yet another judicial election dominated by special interest spending.

Melissa Price Kromm is director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections.