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For immediate release.
Jun. 8, 2009
Contact: Bryan Warner, N.C. Center for Voter Education, 877-258-6837
Supreme Court Ruling Confirms Importance of N.C. Judicial Public Financing
RALEIGH - A ruling handed down Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court confirms the importance of North Carolina’s system of public campaign financing for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races.
In its 5-4 decision in Caperton v. Massey, the high court ruled that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have sat out in a case involving a coalmining executive who spent more than $3 million to get the justice elected.
Instead, the West Virginia justice ruled in favor of his campaign donor, overturning a $50 million jury award.
“We conclude that there is a serious risk of actual bias when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority decision.
The West Virginia case is a prime example of the potential conflicts of interests that have arisen in courthouses around the nation as the cost of campaigning for state courts has increased, along with the amount of special interest cash injected into these judicial races.
North Carolina, however, has largely been spared from seeing its judicial candidates take large amounts of special interest money -- thanks in great part to the Tar Heel State’s innovative system of public campaign financing for its highest courts.
“Whether or not judges are actually biased in favor of a litigant who contributes to a campaign isn’t the issue, of more concern is the appearance that justice is for sale,” said Damon Circosta, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. “Luckily in North Carolina, our appellate judges have the option of public financing. This first-in-the-nation program keeps judges focused on making good decisions and not having to worry about who contributes to their election campaigns.”
Since the program’s implementation in the 2004 election, a majority of appellate level judicial candidates have voluntarily opted into North Carolina’s public financing program. The program is also widely supported among the public, with 60 percent of state voters favoring judicial public financing, according to a study commissioned by the N.C. Center for Voter Education in April of this year.
The N.C. Center for Voter Education joined Democracy North Carolina and Common Cause North Carolina in filing a friend of the court brief in the case of Caperton v. Massey, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to find a due process violation, which it did.
Proponents of North Carolina’s judicial public financing program say it should be extended to trial court elections.
Patterned after the judicial program, a public financing pilot was launched in 2008 for three Council of State races. A bill under consideration in the N.C. Legislature would expand public financing to five more Council of State offices.
The N.C. Center for Voter Education is a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.