NC Judicial Public Financing: A Success Story

Everyone agrees that our courts should be unbiased and free from special-interest influence. But we elect our judges and they have to get their campaign money from somewhere. Traditionally, most of their funds have come from business groups and attorneys who appear in court.

To overcome the awkward conflict of judges taking money from those who appear in their courtroom, North Carolina began a voluntary public financing program in 2004. The program provides an alternative source of “clean” campaign money to candidates for the NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals – if they can meet certain public trust conditions.

Opponents call it “welfare for politicians,” but it’s really a sweat equity program that requires judicial candidates to first raise hundreds of small, qualifying donations from registered voters and also abide by strict spending and fundraising limits.

After four elections, the program has (1) gained broad, bi-partisan support from judicial candidates, (2) reduced their reliance on large donations, and (3) increased the diversity of judges on the state’s top courts. The program also does not use money from the NC General Fund.

It’s helping North Carolinians achieve an independent, yet accountable judicial system.

BROAD USE:  47 of the 61 (77%) candidates in contested general elections for the NC Supreme Court or Court of Appeals have enrolled in the program from 2004 through 2010, but 8 of the 47 failed to qualify because they did not raise the required amount of qualifying donations.

The 39 qualifying candidates include 19 winners and 20 losers, 15 Republicans and 24 Democrats, 15 incumbents and 10 challengers (the rest sought an open seat), 6 African Americans and 33 whites, 19 women and 20 men.

DIVERSITY:   18 of the 22 judges on the current NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals qualified for public financing, including all 11 women and all four African Americans.

For the first time in our state’s history, the majority of the NC Supreme Court justices will be women in 2011. In 2002, before the shift to public financing and nonpartisan elections, all three black appellate judges who sought reelection lost; but the four black judges who have run since then in regular elections all used public financing and won.

INDEPENDENCE:  In the 2002 election, 73% of the non-family funds raised by appellate judicial candidates came from attorneys, attorney groups, business PACs and special interests that often appear in court. That figure dropped to 14% after public financing became an option.

SUSTAINABLE:  The Public Campaign Fund that supports the program is not financed with an appropriationfrom the General Fund. Instead, about half its money comes from a $50 assessment on attorneys and the other half comes from a voluntary $3 designation on the state income tax form. The Fund also pays for a judicial voter guide that is mailed to 4 million homes.

NATIONAL MODEL:  NC’s program has won praise from the American Bar Association and many other groups. It is the model for programs in New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia.