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The value of judicial public financing is clear

N.C. lawmakers are poised to upend a successful program that’s been keeping special interest money from dominating the selection of judges in this state. Here’s the public’s take: Don’t do it.

That came through clearly in a new poll commissioned by the N.C. Center for Voter Education. The survey found that 68 percent of N.C. voters favor the state’s voluntary public campaign financing program. Just 23 percent oppose it. Support for the program is bipartisan – 67 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats favor it. So do 65 percent of unaffiliated voters.

Additionally, candidates who’ve sought judicial seats support it. All judicial candidates last year took part in the program.

Two popular former N.C. governors – one a Democrat, the other a Republican – have chimed in their voices of support. Jim Holshouser, the Republican, and Jim Hunt, the Democrat, collaborated on a letter sent to newspapers across the state to urge preservation of public funding. They noted rightly that the program helps candidates from having to seek out or succumb to special interests for campaign funds. “It frees judges from the endless money chase and prevents the appearance that justice is for sale,” they wrote.

That’s exactly what was happening in this state before public financing started. In 2002, the last year with no public financing, 73 percent of campaign funds for judicial candidates came from attorneys and special interest groups. In 2004, that number had dropped to 14 percent, said the Brennan Center for Justice.

Opponents of public financing claim it is an infringement on free speech and a costly waste of tax dollars. But the program is almost entirely funded through a $50 fee levied on active members of the N.C. State Bar and an optional – yes, optional – check-off on state income tax returns. And because the $4 million currently allocated comes from a fee and contributions specifically for campaign finance, a good chunk of the revenue stream will end – not be available for other programs.

As for free speech, program participants do have to agree to limit their fundraising. But rather than limit free speech this program attempts to level the playing field to allow many voices to be heard rather than a few because of their ability to shovel piles of cash into a candidate’s campaign coffers. A big reason the legislature opted for a public financing program was to protect judicial candidates from the detrimental effects of increasingly large amounts of money being raised and spent to influence the outcomes of elections.

We saw money’s influence in the N.C. Supreme Court race last fall. Both candidates – incumbent Justice Paul Newby and Appeals Court Judge Sam Ervin IV – chose to receive public financing. But a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed unlimited money to come into the race from outside sources. A flood of cash came into the state from conservative groups to help Newby. His campaign outspent Ervin’s almost 10 to 1. But observers said the public financing program still allowed Ervin to run a competitive race.

A barrage of special interest money is also a troubling byproduct of another change legislators are pushing – making judicial races partisan. The difference in campaign donations in states with nonpartisan judicial races and those with partisan races is stark. Partisan races attract more than double the amount in nonpartisan races as monied special interests seek to influence candidates.

But the rule of law should guide judges, not politics or ideology. In the voter education poll, 60 percent said judicial candidates should continue to run nonpartisan.

A legislative committee heard arguments about these changes Wednesday. Unfortunately, the House panel voted to end the voluntariy $3 check-off. The full legislature should reject this and other changes.

It’s time to listen to the public. They want an independent judiciary. Public financing and nonpartisan elections help provide it.

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