NC must say no to partisan court races

North Carolina could soon join a handful of states that elect their high court justices in partisan races – the first state to make such a switch in nearly 100 years. The eight states with partisan primary or general elections have seen vastly more money in their judicial elections. All eight were among the top 10 states in judicial campaign cash 2000-2009. It seems impossible that this is a coincidence.

A 2013 Center for American Progress report concluded that, “In partisan elections, campaign donors can be much more certain of a candidate’s views prior to donating money. By the time a candidate is chosen in a partisan primary, special interests can be sure the party’s candidate is a ‘team player.’”

As we saw in last year’s election, the repeal of public financing in North Carolina means judicial candidates must now rely heavily on wealthy campaign donors. If a bill in the state legislature becomes law, would-be judges will also have to rely on party bosses.

The legislature seems intent on bringing big-money judicial elections back to the Tar Heel state. The General Assembly is systematically destroying reforms included in a 2002 bill that kept big money out of Supreme Court elections for a decade. The 2000 judicial elections broke spending records across America, and four states with partisan races –Alabama, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois – saw “an unprecedented tidal wave of money,” according to a report from fair courts advocates.

North Carolina saw its first multimillion-dollar election the same year. Prescient legislators switched to nonpartisan races and acted to stop the tide of big-money sweeping into other supreme courts. The public financing program gave candidates a few hundred thousand dollars to campaign, if they qualified by raising small donations. The 2002 bill was a bipartisan effort, and judges across the ideological spectrum lauded public financing.

Fourteen of the 15 judges on the state Court of Appeals asked the legislature to keep the program. But millionaire campaign donor Art Pope, who was appointed to be the governor’s budget director, played a key role in killing a compromise proposal to save the program in the 2013 state budget.

Without public financing, judicial candidates in 2014 had to go into fundraising overdrive to spend big on television ads. A record $5 million was spent in last year’s North Carolina Supreme Court election. North Carolina appellate court candidates decried the system. Incumbent Justice Cheri Beasley lamented the loss of public financing and said, “Justice ought not be for sale.”

At the same time that the North Carolina legislature is dismantling the 2002 reforms, piece-by-piece, a state that has experienced several corruption controversies is moving to adopt the same reforms. The Republican-controlled West Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill to implement nonpartisan elections, and it is rolling out a public financing program for judges.

These actions come a decade after coal mining executive Don Blankenship spent $3 million to elect a West Virginia Supreme Court justice, who then voted to overturn a $50 million verdict against his mining company. The state’s chief justice recently came under fire after her husband’s $1 million Lear jet was purchased by a lawyer appearing before her.

These scandals prompted West Virginia legislators to act. They’ve seen the impact of judicial campaign cash on the public’s confidence in the courts. North Carolina legislators could learn something from them.

Polls consistently show that the public believes campaign contributions influence judges’ decisions, and a 2001 survey of state judges found that half of them agreed. For a decade, North Carolina’s public financing system freed judges from raising large campaign contributions and fostered confidence in judicial impartiality.

The legislature’s plan to inject partisanship back into North Carolina courts makes no sense. Do we want judges appealing to their party’s bases, like they now must appeal to campaign contributors? North Carolina should keep partisanship out of its high court.

Billy Corriher of Shelby is the director

of Research for Legal Progress at the Center

for American Progress in Washington.