"The arms race for money that drives our campaigns threatens the concept of one person, one vote."
First in the Nation: NC's Judicial Public Financing Program
In 2004, North Carolina began a voluntary program to address the inherent conflict of judges raising large amounts of money from attorneys who appear in their courts. The program provides a statewide voter guide and an alternative source of campaign money to candidates for the NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals if they meet certain public trust conditions. Participation is voluntary. Candidates can raise campaign money the old-fashioned way, from private donors, OR they can qualify for a competitive amount of campaign money from the NC Public Campaign Fund – IF they accept strict fundraising limits and demonstrate broad public support by raising hundreds of qualifying donations from registered NC voters.
Bipartisan Support for a National Model
A bipartisan group of NC business and civic leaders wrote state legislators to encourage their continued support of the program. The letter was signed by former Gov. Jim Holshouser, Gov. Jim Martin and Gov. Jim Hunt, a dozen former presidents of the State Bar and NC Bar Association, and hundreds of other leaders. The May 2011 letter concluded:
“. . . we join together to urge you to protect the integrity of the judicial system and preserve the judicial public financing program and Public Campaign Fund. Many of us would prefer a different model for selecting judges, but as long as we elect the members of our state’s top courts, we should continue this vital program.”
The American Bar Association has heralded North Carolina’s innovative program as a model for the nation. Its framework has now been used for judicial public financing programs in New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia. A 2009 report by the Center for Government Studies says:
“North Carolina established the nation’s first effective public campaign financing program for judicial elections in 2004. . . . The program increases public confidence in the courts by eliminating [the chase for] political contributions in judicial elections.”
Voters Must Authorize Use of Public Funds
To get access to public funds, the candidate first must raise donations of $10-$500 from at least 350 registered voters, adding up to at least $39,450. Candidates went well beyond the minimum and engaged a large number of small donors.
·More than 4,200 different registered voters provided qualifying donations to the 8 appellate court candidates in the 2012 election. Over 4,000 voters donated in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Broad Participation by Candidates
The program has gained widespread use by candidates across the political spectrum, including all 8 appellate candidates in 2012. Several have tried but failed to meet the public support test.
·55 of 69 (80%) of the candidates in contested races for the NC Supreme Court and Court of
Appeals enrolled in the program in the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 general elections.
·8 of the 55 candidates who enrolled in the program failed to qualify for a public grant because they did not obtain the threshold number of donors or dollar amount of qualifying contributions.
·All kinds of candidates have qualified: incumbents and challengers; black and white; men and women; Democrats and Republicans; winners and losers.
Funds for a Competitive Campaign
The public grant supplements the qualifying donations; together, they provide a viable amount of funding for a campaign. The candidate can raise up to about $80,000 of private donations from hundreds of voters and then receive the public grant. In 2012, qualifying candidates for Supreme Court Associate Justice received $240,100 and Court of Appeals candidates received $164,400.
· Before 2012, qualifying candidates who were hit by a large amount of opposition spending could receive a second grant (“rescue funds”) to stay competitive, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that awarding extra public funds based on the action of an opponent is not allowed.
· In the 2012 election, more than $2.5 million was spent by outside groups to help Justice Paul Newby defeat Judge Sam J. Ervin IV. Now that rescue funds are not allowed, consideration should be given to raise the amount of the public grant.
Reduced Special Interest Funding & Conflicts-of-Interest
One objective of the program was to provide judicial candidates with an alternative source of “clean” funding so they did not need to rely so heavily on those who appear in their courtrooms. The program has replaced a dependency on self-interested money with public-interest money.
· Before the program began, judicial candidates in the 2002 general election received 73% of their non-family campaign money from attorneys, special-interest PACs or political committees
· This figure dropped to 14% for the 12 candidates who qualified to receive public support in the 2004 general election and has remained low since then.
A Sustainable Public Campaign Fund
The Public Campaign Fund receives its income from two sources, which are sufficient to pay for grants to the candidates and mail 4 million Judicial Voter Guides to all households in the state.
· The $3 voluntary check-off on the NC tax form generates $1.1 million a year for the Fund.
· The $50 surcharge on the dues paid by attorneys also generates about $1.1 million a year.
The $3 voluntary check-off appears on the state income-tax form, but research shows that more than half the taxpayers are not aware of it, often because they are not asked the question by their tax preparer or they miss it on electronic and paper forms. Beginning in 2006, attorneys were required to pay a $50 surcharge on their dues to the State Bar. Attorneys in the NC General Assembly sponsored this addition because attorneys have a special obligation to protect the integrity of the court system; indeed, their livelihood depends on the public’s trust in the courts.
The success of North Carolina’s judicial campaign reform program stands in sharp contrast to the stream of negative news about campaign finance abuses and pay-to-play politics. Consider these recent newsworthy events, which deserve attention even in the midst of the fascination with “gotcha” stories:
- This is the first year since the state’s judicial public financing program began in 2004 that 100% of the appellate court candidates have signed up to participate in the program. All 11 of the candidates in four contested races have now filed their “declaration of intent.” They must abide by strict fundraising and spending limits and raise at least 350 small qualifying contributions from registered voters before becoming eligible for any public campaign money. A 12th candidate, Appeals Court Judge Sanford Steelman Jr., also signed up early, but since he faces no opposition, he will not receive any public funds.
- Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia signed into law that state’s pilot judicial public financing program, first scheduled to be used during the 2012 election. West Virginia becomes the third state to adopt a judicial public financing program modeled on North Carolina’s pioneering program. Wisconsin enacted its law in 2009 and New Mexico passed its in 2007.
- In the 2004, 2006 and 2008 general elections in North Carolina, a total of 31 of the 40 (78%) candidates in contested appellate court races qualified for campaign support from the Public Campaign Fund. Five of the seven current members of the N.C. Supreme Court and a majority of the current members of the N.C. Court of Appeals were elected using the program. In general, the program has been used successfully by incumbents and challengers, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, men and women. It has also successfully reduced the reliance of candidates on special-interest donations tied to parties involved in litigation. The percentage of campaign money from lawyers and litigation groups has fallen from 73% of the total in 2002 (before the program) to 14% in 2004 (after the program). This percentage continues to drop.
- The 100% participation rate in 2010 is especially noteworthy after the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to allow corporations to finance independent campaigns for or against candidates, which some commentators suggested could scare candidates away from voluntarily accepting the fundraising limits that go with public campaign support.
- The success of the judicial reform program provides a model for addressing problems of special-interest influences and pay-to-play politics affecting other offices in North Carolina. It was used as the framework for the public financing program for three NC Council of State offices that began in 2008. Legislation to expand that program is now in the NC General Assembly (S-20, H-586), ready for action in the session beginning in May.