The law setting up the North Carolina Public Campaign Fund is clear about its goals. Chapter 163, Article 22D of the General Statutes aims “to ensure the fairness of democratic elections in North Carolina and to protect the constitutional rights of voters and candidates from the detrimental effects of increasingly large amounts of money being raised and spent to influence the outcome of elections, those effects being especially problematic in elections of the judiciary, since impartiality is uniquely important to the integrity and credibility of the courts.”
Well, can’t have any of that. Or so the thinking apparently goes among legislative chiefs who have drafted a state budget consigning the law to oblivion.
North Carolina was ahead of the national curve when the Public Campaign Fund took effect in 2004. Since then, our public financing of judicial campaigns has succeeded in freeing candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals – including sitting judges who seek reelection — from the most onerous demands of fundraising. That allows incumbents to pay more attention to their duties and all candidates to spend less time drumming up contributions from people who then may think the recipient owes them something.
The public financing approach has proved popular among candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have been eligible to use it. Yes, if they choose to take public money, it may make their lives a little easier. This summary from the reform group Democracy North Carolina explains how the program works.
But because candidates who volunteer for the program must limit their outside fundraising, they typically can’t afford the saturation ad blitzes that are common in campaigns for other high offices. That puts more of a premium on intellect, experience and a well-articulated commitment to fair and impartial judging than on ad campaigns that can be designed to pander to voters’ lesser instincts.
Power Brokers’ Influence
What’s sad is that some North Carolina power brokers apparently think such ad campaigns are perfectly fine ways for judicial candidates to try to sell themselves. It’s not surprising that those power brokers include people who expect that their fundraising ability will give any candidate they’re backing the edge, or who like the idea that they’ll be holding what amount to IOUs from sitting judges.
Even though publicly financed judicial campaigns have enjoyed bipartisan support – Jim Holshouser, the former Republican governor who died Monday, stood firmly behind the concept – Republicans who control both houses of the General Assembly have been skeptical. There seems to be a sense in the party that Republican candidates are better positioned to tap private funds and thus that the public program deprives them of a natural advantage.
Senators and representatives will meet over the coming days to resolve differences in the budget legislation that has passed both houses. As things stand, that legislation would scrap the judicial public financing program. Ominously, when an amendment that would have kept the program alive in a scaled-down form looked as though it might get favorable treatment, state Budget Director Art Pope showed up to make sure the repeal stayed on track. Pope, besides being a key figure in Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, is a prominent campaign financier. And he’s outspokenly opposed to funding political campaigns with public money. Coincidence?
Citizens United Effect
It’s true that a curious decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has undermined the viability of public campaign financing by outlawing the use of so-called rescue funds – public money that would help a publicly financed candidate keep pace with a big-spending, privately financed rival. And the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case allows ostensibly independent campaigns funded by special interests to trump rules meant to keep that kind of influence in check. Still, if the public financing program remained on the books, it seems likely that some, if not most, judicial candidates would continue to use it.
That would strengthen public confidence in the courts’ impartiality. And it would broaden the pool of prospective judges to include men and women who may be well-suited for the bench but who don’t want to undergo the rigors and ethical challenges of private fundraising.
At the same time, another well-conceived public financing venture also appears threatened. Candidates for state auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction now are eligible for public campaign funding. Again, the idea is to limit the influence of special interests. The program should be extended to cover other regulatory and policy-making positions in the Council of State such as labor commissioner and state treasurer. Instead, there’s movement to wipe it out.
The Council of Churches’ perspective on the issue of public campaign financing reflects a belief that elections best serve the overall public good when the distorting influences of special, vested interests eager to throw their financial weight around are kept to a minimum.
Specifically with respect to the election of judges, the Council’s view is that public trust in the courts is essential, as is judges’ unwavering commitment to follow the law, not the wishes of campaign contributors and supporters. It’s not too late for legislators to step away from the brink and preserve the Public Campaign Fund. If they do, North Carolina will be the better for it.
–Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate