Governors’ viewpoint: Big money jeopardizes courts’ integrity

  • Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 12:36 a.m.

As former Republican and Democratic governors, we often disagree. But here’s one area where we strongly agree: We don’t want the integrity of our courts — or your right to a fair trial — put at risk by large campaign donations.

Unfortunately, the risk will increase if a handful of state legislators persuade their colleagues to abandon a program that has helped protect our courts from the influence of political money.

Judges on the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are elected — and that means they need campaign money from somewhere to get their message out to voters. But there’s an obvious problem with judges raising large amounts of money from those who appear in the courts. Nobody wants to see the umpire taking money from one of the teams before the game begins.

Several years ago, as the cost of judicial campaigns grew rapidly, state legislators addressed this problem. In fact, the question was even more pointed: Do we want the public to believe justice is for sale to the highest bidder?

During that year, 2002, individuals and groups with a financial interest in the outcome of court cases supplied 73 percent of the campaign funds in judicial elections.

In response, North Carolina legislators debated a variety of solutions and settled on an innovative, “clean elections” program to protect judicial candidates — and the public — from the pressures of private donors and high-stakes political fundraising. The American Bar Association praised the program and it has now been adopted in several other states.

Here’s how it works.

Candidates for the N.C. Court of Appeals or Supreme Court can receive a fixed amount of “clean” campaign funds if they abide by a set of strict rules that promote independence and accountability. They must first raise several hundred small donations from registered N.C. voters to demonstrate their broad support. They must refuse donations from out-of-state donors, special-interest PACs and political parties. And they must accept spending limits and restrictions on how they use campaign money. If they do all these things, they receive a set amount of money from the public campaign fund to run their campaign, along with the small donations raised from voters.

By law, participation in the program must be voluntary — it’s earned, not free or automatic. The money in the public campaign fund comes from a surcharge on the annual dues attorneys pay to the State Bar and from a check-off that state taxpayers can use to voluntarily move $3 of their taxes into the fund. The impact on the state budget is tiny: less than 50 cents per $10,000 of state funding is affected.

The good news is that the program has been wildly successful. In the past decade, 80 percent of appellate court candidates have enrolled in the program — incumbents and challengers from a diversity of backgrounds and political persuasions. The level of self-interested donations has plummeted, and the public campaign fund is also paying for a judicial voter guide that is sent to all households with profiles of the candidates and information about the voting process.

The bad news is that some legislators are philosophically against candidates having the option to use public campaign funding. These legislators are sponsoring bills and rallying other members to kill the program.

We agree that other ways to select judges deserve serious consideration. In fact, we personally prefer an approach where judges are appointed based on their merit rather than chosen because of their ability to campaign for election. In our constitutional system, we need impartial judges who protect the rights and liberties of all; they must be unbiased referees who focus on the law and facts of a case, not the pressures of an upcoming election.

We welcome an in-depth debate about the best way to protect the fairness and independence of our courts. But we should all agree that as long as judges are elected, we must keep and strengthen the judicial public financing program.

Republican James E. Holshouser Jr. of Southern Pines served as governor from 1973 to 1977. Democrat James B. Hunt, Jr. of Wilson served as governor from 1977 to 1985 and 1993 to 2001.

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