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How Art Pope killed a popular judicial financing program

From Billy Corriher, Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. Corriher grew up in Cherryville.

This is the story of how one very wealthy man stopped a government program endorsed by three North Carolina governors (two Republicans and a Democrat), most of the judges from both parties on the state’s top courts, and hundreds of civic and business leaders.

The program began a decade ago to give judicial candidates an alternative to relying on wealthy donors with business pending in the courts. Under the new program, candidates could qualify for a public campaign grant if they refused large donations, accepted spending limits, and showed strong public support by raising hundreds of small donations from voters.

The program has worked remarkably well. Eighty percent of the candidates for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court have enrolled, and it has encouraged more diversity on the bench. One man has long opposed this financing option that limits the influence of wealthy donors.

His name is James Arthur “Art” Pope. Through his family foundation, he finances a network of ultra-conservative organizations that have attacked the judicial program for years. And through his business, he finances groups that are responsible for three fourths of the independent spending that helped elect a Republican majority in the legislature in 2010 and much of the outside money to elect Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012.

Once in office, Gov. McCrory selected Art Pope as his budget director.

When he released the governor’s budget plan in March, Pope emphasized that it eliminated the two funding sources for the judicial campaign fund – a voluntary $3 check-off on the tax form and a $50 fee for attorneys. He also siphoned $3.5 million from the fund for other purposes and said the remaining money would only pay for the popular judicial voter guides. The message was clear: No more public grants to qualified candidates.

In May, 14 of the 15 judges on the N.C. Court of Appeals urged lawmakers to keep the program. A Republican pollster also found that the public, especially GOP women, strongly approved the program’s goals.

In response, Republican state Rep. Jonathan Jordan proposed a compromise. He would let $3.5 million be taken from the public fund and end the $3 check-off, but he’d keep the attorney’s $50 fee flowing into the program. Jordan’s proposal looked like it would pass the House.

But on June 12, before Jordan’s amendment came to a vote, Pope went to the General Assembly. According to both men, Pope told Jordan he opposed the program and that the $50 fee couldn’t be used for grants for candidates. Pope recalls saying “North Carolina courts have held using compulsory attorney fees for political campaigns to be unconstitutional.”

After the conversation, Jordan withdrew his amendment. The House voted to end the public financing program.

What’s worse is that Pope gave Jordan wrong information!

The 2009 court ruling Pope cited actually said the $50 fee is constitutional, although attorneys must have the option of designating their payment to support only the voter guide, not the campaign grants. In practice, most attorneys let their $50 be used for both the guide and grants.

The program has served North Carolina citizens and judges well. But one wealthy campaign donor targeted it for elimination by any means necessary. Instead of publicly funded elections, he prefers “Pope-funded” elections.

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