Keeping big money out of N.C.'s judiciary

When opponents of North Carolina's experimental program of public funding of elections filed their challenge to the law with the U.S. Supreme Court, no doubt they were convinced that the conservative high court would see the wisdom in their challenge and declare it unconstitutional. But the court this week rejected the appeal, leaving intact the program that provides money for N.C. appellate judicial elections.

The Supreme Court in its landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision authorized spending and fundraising limits if they are part of voluntary programs to avoid the excesses of big money in elections. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond had already upheld North Carolina's judicial public funding program – since extended in the 2008 election to three Council of State elections.

The program is popular. Most candidates in judicial races and in the Council of State races applied for participation, though not all of them raised the necessary threshold amounts in small donations to qualify. Still, 11 of 12 judicial candidates participated this year, marking the program as an extraordinary success. The nonprofit group N.C. Voters for Clean Elections said, “Far from chilling speech, public campaign financing expands it, enlarging public discussion and debate in the electoral process.”

The public funding program means judges and candidates who want to become judges no longer have to rely on raising money from lawyers and their clients who appear before them in court. With North Carolina's long election ballot, most voters don't know the candidates running for judge, and the candidates have had to raise money from lawyers who appear in court or who have clients whose cases will come up there.

The national nonprofit group Justice at Stake notes that before the N.C. law was adopted in 2002, candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court got 73 percent of their contributions from lawyers and special interest groups. In 2004, the first election to use the public funding program, that share dropped to 14 percent.

“This is an important decision in the battle to protect our elective state courts from the undue influence of wealthy contributors,” said Laura MacCleery, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “The court's denial preserves an innovative campaign finance system and protects judicial candidates in North Carolina from going hat-in-hand to the very parties and lawyers who may appear before them in court.”

While some special interests do not like North Carolina's program insulating the judiciary from the potentially corruptive influence of big money, judicial candidates have been able to spend more time campaigning and less time begging for money from the public. An independent judiciary is obviously in the public interest.. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have gotten this case right.