For nearly ten years, North Carolina’s judicial elections have been spared the multi-million-dollar slugfests that have swamped other states. Rather than relying on wealthy campaign contributors, appellate court candidates had access to public financing for their campaigns. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling made the program’s “matching” funds unconstitutional, and the 2012 N.C. high court election was dominated by independent spending funded largely by groups based in Washington, D.C. But despite these setbacks, both candidates in 2012 participated in the program. Voters and judges overwhelmingly support the current system.
This system is now under attack by a single wealthy campaign donor who is intent on destroying the program and allowing special interest money to flood North Carolina’s judicial elections. Multi-millionaire Art Pope was responsible for three fourths of the independent spending to support Republican candidates to the state legislature in 2010, when Republicans gained control of the legislature and the Governor’s mansion for the first time since 1870. The state’s new Republican governor then selected Pope as his budget director. Pope has long opposed North Carolina’s public financing program, which keeps wealthy campaign donors like him from influencing the law through judicial elections.
Legislators initially proposed three different budgets, all of which eliminated funds for public financing. But a compromise emerged that would have saved the program but tweaked how it was funded. Pope intervened and lobbied the bill’s sponsor, who pulled his proposal. As one critic said, these actions prove that the millionaire campaign donor prefers “Pope-funded elections” to publicly-funded elections.
Facing criticism, Pope claimed the proposal was unconstitutional. Citing a 2009 court ruling, Pope correctly noted that attorneys could not be forced to fund the public financing program through an annual fee, because forcing them to fund political speech would violate their free speech rights. But attorneys are not forced to fund the program. After the 2009 ruling, the state bar made sure that attorneys could earmark their fees for purposes other than the public financing program. So Pope’s legal analysis is completely wrong.
Not content with opening the floodgates to campaign cash from donors who want to influence judges, Republicans in the state legislature are also looking to return to partisan elections for judges. Only a handful of states still elect high court judges in partisan races, and all of these states have seen dramatically more campaign cash in their judicial elections than other states. Judicial campaigns in these states are dominated by money from corporate interest groups, as political parties serve as conduits for special interest money.
North Carolina’s system has served its citizens and its judges well. Polls have shown that voters prefer electing judges but deplore the influence of campaign cash on judges. North Carolina found a way to accommodate this tension by holding nonpartisan elections in which candidates do not have to raise millions in campaign cash But one wealthy campaign donor is undoing all of that progress.