How Art Pope stopped judicial financing option
By Billy Corriher
For the Salisbury Post
This is the story of how one very wealthy man stopped a government program endorsed by three North Carolina governors (two Republicans and a Democrat), most of the judges from both parties on the state’s top courts, and hundreds of civic and business leaders.
The program began a decade ago to give judicial candidates an alternative to relying on wealthy donors with business pending in the courts. Campaign costs were rising and legislators worried that big-money elections would harm the credibility of judges. Under the new program, candidates could qualify for a public campaign grant if they refused large donations, accepted spending limits, and showed strong public support by raising hundreds of small donations from registered voters.
The program has worked remarkably well. Eighty percent of the candidates for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court have enrolled, and it has encouraged more diversity on the bench. Women now make up the majority of the N.C. Supreme Court and the level of special-interest money in judicial elections has plummeted.
One man has long opposed this public financing option that cuts down the influence of wealthy donors.
His name is James Arthur “Art” Pope. He’s the biggest political donor in North Carolina and head of the family that owns the Roses and Maxway discount store chain. Through his family foundation, he finances a network of ultra-conservative organizations that have attacked the judicial program for years.
And through his business, he finances groups that are responsible for three-fourths of the independent spending that helped elect a Republican majority in the legislature in 2010 and much of the outside money to elect Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012.
Once in office, Gov. McCrory selected Art Pope as his budget director. Since then, Pope has been working hard to implement his wish list for transforming government.
When he released the governor’s budget plan in March, Pope emphasized that it eliminated the two funding sources for the judicial campaign fund — a voluntary $3 check-off on the tax form and a $50 fee for attorneys. He also siphoned $3.5 million from the fund for other purposes and said the remaining money would only pay for the popular judicial voter guides. The message was clear: No more public grants to qualified candidates. Let them rely solely on private donations.
In May, 14 of the 15 judges on the N.C. Court of Appeals urged lawmakers to keep the program, calling it “an effective and valuable tool for protecting public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.” A Republican pollster also found that the public, especially GOP women, strongly approved the program’s goals.
In response, state Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican attorney from the mountains, proposed a compromise. He would follow the governor’s budget plan and let $3.5 million be taken from the public fund and end the $3 check-off, but he’d keep the attorney’s $50 fee flowing into the program. Jordan’s proposal had no impact on the state budget, and it looked like it would pass the House.
But on June 12, about an hour before Jordan’s amendment came to a vote, Art Pope went to the General Assembly. According to both men, Pope told Jordan that as the governor’s budget director, he opposed the program and that the $50 fee could not be used to support public grants for candidates. Pope recalls saying that “North Carolina courts have held using compulsory attorney fees for political campaigns to be unconstitutional.”
After the conversation, Jordan withdrew his amendment. The House voted to end the public financing program and barring a miracle, it now seems doomed.
It’s bad enough that Pope used his public position to achieve his personal goal of killing the program. What’s worse is that he gave Jordan wrong information!
The 2009 court ruling Pope cited actually said the $50 fee is constitutional, although attorneys must have the option of designating their payment to support only the voter guide, not the campaign grants.
In practice, most attorneys let their $50 be used for both the guide and grants, so Jordan’s proposal would have kept the program alive for years.
The program has served North Carolina citizens and judges well. But one wealthy campaign donor targeted it for elimination by any means necessary. Instead of publicly-funded elections, he prefers “Pope-funded” elections.
Billy Corriher grew up in Cherryville and now serves as associate director of research for legal progress at the Center for American Progress in Washington.