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New N.C. Judicial Campaigns Prove a Model for Other States
By J. Barlow Herget and Chris Heagarty
Published: Nov. 17, 2004
RALEIGH - It started with a question that got some folks kind of rankled: Should judges up for reelection be able to raise thousands of dollars for their campaigns from lawyers, corporations, or interest groups that might appear before them in court?
No matter how fair and honest a judge is, someone’s going to look at that and be suspicious of the money influencing whether or not someone gets a fair trial. Or, there was the risk that perfectly good judges could get knocked off the bench by special interests spending millions of dollars on nasty attack ads, because they didn’t like a particular decision, or because they wanted to “buy a philosophy” on the bench.
That kind of risk is what prompted North Carolinians to change their election laws for judges, and develop the new public campaign financing system that was used in this past election.
Some critics accused reformers of playing Chicken Little and claiming the sky was falling when things were perfectly fine. But a quick look around the country this election season shows that, guess what, the reformers were ahead of the game after all.
Under North Carolina’s new law, the statewide candidates for judges had a choice: run the old fashioned way, or agree to limit their fundraising, take only smaller contributions, and forgo all special interest money and in return receive public campaign funds to help finance their races. Fourteen of the 16 judicial candidates filed for the program and 12 of them ultimately qualified. This gave all of them a level monetary playing field and freed them from spending all of their time fundraising, and instead let them go out and talk directly to more voters.
Where did this money come from? Only from taxpayers who agreed with the program, and most of that through an option on our state income tax form. When tax time came, we had the chance to check a box for the fund. For each of us who marked “yes,” three dollars was directed to the judicial financing system. This helped pay for the new state judicial voter guides you should have received in the mail this year, as well as the campaign fund.
So, most of North Carolina’s candidates for judges had equal funding and agreed to say no to special interest money. How refreshing an idea!
Things were different in other parts of the country.
Candidates and interest groups in other states have combined to spend over $40 million this year on judicial races. While North Carolina’s candidates agreed to limited spending, similar judicial races in Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and West Virginia drew millions of dollars for campaign spending.
North Carolina’s judicial candidates used their money mostly to buy biographical TV ads and campaign literature. By contrast, voters in Michigan saw a television spot that accused a judicial candidate of being in favor of sexual harassment. A West Virginia Supreme Court Justice was practically branded a pro-rapist by a special interest group called “For the Sake of Kids” but which was, it seems, bankrolled by a big utility company. Maybe North Carolinians just have better taste, or maybe special interests just don’t care much about public respect or confidence in our courts.
North Carolina’s new campaign laws helped defuse explosive special interest attacks, but there were some changes people will have to get used to. While we have been electing our local judges for several years without party labels, some folks were surprised to find out that the state’s top judges were also running in nonpartisan races, or at least contests without a party name attached.
Some judges took that to heart and really did go out of their way to avoid any politics. One candidate for a statewide judicial office, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, argued that party politics are bad for the court, since judges are supposed to be independent. He wrote to the leaders of both major political parties and told them he thought endorsing judges based only on their party affiliation was a step backwards.
Unfortunately, the parties didn’t agree and promoted their slates of candidates to their party members. In some cases candidates with much more judicial experience weren’t even mentioned, even though they belonged to the same party, because they dared to be independent.
But whether they decided to campaign as politically active Republicans or Democrats, or instead focused on independence and impartiality, all the candidates got a chance to get their message out to every North Carolinian, through the State Judicial Voter Guide that was sent out before the election.
If you didn’t throw it out by mistake thinking it was more political junk mail, you received a red booklet with all sorts of biographical and personal information about the candidates, as well as a long statement by them about their qualifications, their endorsements, and in some cases their beliefs or their political party.
All changes take some getting used to, but North Carolina’s new judicial election system is a step in the right direction, especially compared to what’s going on in states all around us. It’s a big help in the fight to keep political rancor and special interest dollars out of our state’s highest courts.