All but one of the 15 N.C. Court of Appeals judges judges who belong to both political parties have added their voices to the chorus urging lawmakers to maintain public financing of judicial elections and to keep them nonpartisan.
Legislators, please listen.
The judges sent a letter to N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger (with copies to Gov. Pat McCrory and others) with this message: We, the undersigned members of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, write to urge the preservation of the current system of appellate judicial elections. Despite our individual differences with respect to race, gender, political party, and judicial philosophy, we all agree that our current system of nonpartisan judicial elections supplemented by public financing is an effective and valuable tool for protecting public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.
They wrote that nonpartisan elections encourage voters to choose the best qualified judicial candidate and help assure the public that politics have no proper place in the courtroom and that we work to uphold the rule of law for all the states voters, regardless of partisan affiliation.
The judges state that the public financing program is not a panacea but wrote that it gives qualified and credible judicial candidates access to funds necessary to campaign statewide without having to rely on sources that might be questioned by the public as potentially influencing judicial elections.
These are excellent points, ones this editorial board has made. Lawmakers pushing through legislation to end the nationally praised and emulated public financing program and wishing to put a partisan label on candidates seeking judgeships are jeopardizing both the independence of the courts and the publics faith in them.
Opponents of public financing claim it is an infringement on free speech and a costly waste of tax dollars. But the program is substantially funded through a $50 fee levied on active members of the N.C. State Bar, and an optional check-off on state income tax returns. 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 candidates campaign coffers. A big reason the legislature opted for a public financing program in 2002 was to protect judicial candidates from the detrimental effects of increasingly large amounts of money being raised and spent to influence election outcomes.
We pointed last month to a statewide poll showing the public firmly behind public financing. Support is bipartisan 67 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of unaffiliated voters favor it. A more recent poll by the GOP-leaning pollsters the Tarrance Group also showed voters saying they would be less inclined to vote for lawmakers who wanted to end public financing.
Three former N.C. governors Republicans Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, and Democrat Jim Hunt have also stated support for the public financing program. More than 200 business leaders have, too. And tellingly, most judicial candidates use the voluntary program every election, state elections director Kim Strach notes.
Critics who say the program doesnt work are ignoring the facts. The appellate judges in their letter are saying quite clearly it does. And these figures provide further proof: 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.
Thats success. In the words of the appellate judges, the program has been tested, election after election, and has worked well. Lawmakers, please keep it as it is.
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