Gov. Jim Holshouser, Gov. Jim Hunt, Gov. Martin Join Forces to Protect Clean Elections

RALEIGH – Today, 200 business and civic leaders, including two dozen past presidents of the NC State Bar and NC Bar Association, called on state lawmakers to protect the integrity of the state’s court system by preserving a law that reduces the influence of private money in the elections of appellate judges.

The letter, signed by former Governors Jim Holshouser, Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, former US Senator Robert Morgan, former UNC President Bill Friday and prominent business and civic leaders, urges legis-lators to protect the popular program that offers a public financing option to qualifying judicial candidates. 

Bills filed in both the House and Senate aim to kill clean elections for judges this year. However, last week, the House Committee on Elections changed one bill (H-452) to retain the judicial program – but it repeals a program covering three Council of State offices that lacks an independent source of funding. The judicial program’s Public Campaign Fund is funded by a voluntary $3 tax check-off and a mandatory $50 surcharge on attorney’s annual dues; it does not depend on an appropriation from the NC General Fund.

“While our coalition doesn’t want to see the Council of State program end, we’re happy that so many of our state’s elder statesmen have united across party lines to say that the judicial program serves a vital purpose,” said Melissa Price, coordinator of NC Voters for Clean Elections, a coalition of 30 organizations, ranging from the NC AARP to the NC Bankers Association to the NC NAACP. “Fair and impartial courts are one of our nation’s greatest achievements,” the letter to lawmakers says. The state’s system of voluntary public financing “has freed our judges from the unseemly notion that justice is for sale.”

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. It’s essentially 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. If they meet the qualifications, they are entitled to a public grant that partially covers their campaign expenses.

The state leaders note that, since its inception in 2004, judicial public financing has been very successful. Incumbents and challengers, men and women, and judges with varying political perspectives have run and won under the program. Since 2004, 77 percent of eligible candidates chose to use the program. The program also pays for a Voter Guide sent to households statewide.

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 special-interest groups has fallen from 73 percent of the total in 2002 (before the program) to 14 percent in 2004 (after the program). For more about the program, see www.ncvce.orgor contact Melissa Price at 919-272-5447.

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