Court ruling defies election reform effort

This is getting to be a habit. For the second time in a decade, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down an N.C. General Assembly attempt to regulate certain kinds of political committees. But this time the court has done real damage.

It has ruled unconstitutional the state's $4,000 limit on contributions to independent political campaigns that do not coordinate their work with candidates' campaigns. The effect is to allow independent political committees to raise unlimited sums from individual donors in races for governor and other state campaigns.

Candidates for those jobs, of course, remain subject to the traditional $4,000 contribution limit. The state can regulate contributions to those campaigns because, under the Supreme Court's 1972 Buckley v. Valeo decision, there is a public interest in keeping corruption out of political races.

But the 4th Circuit court in Richmond ruled that an N.C. statute regulating independent committees is unconstitutional. It said the state has not shown that regulating independent contributions prevents corruption. Thus, contributors to an independent committee in support of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory's bid for governor this fall against Democrat Bev Perdue may give as much as they like.

That means contributors are giving as much as $100,000 to a new PAC the Republican Governors Association created to help elect Mr. McCrory. Yet it's not clear that donors even know who Mr. McCrory is. Is this what the 4th Circuit intended?

Democrats, too, can benefit from unregulated independent campaign expenditures, and evidently the sky is the limit. That's appalling.

We've already seen the dangers of money in politics in North Carolina, including the corruption that comes from illegal cash contributions, bribes and vote-buying. The 4th Circuit's indifference to the corruption that potentially can come from excessive money in politics is disheartening. While the court ruling protects the speech of wealthy donors, it risks allowing high-priced speech to drown out the speech of those bound by contribution limits.

It's one more reason for North Carolina to continue pursuing its visionary experiment in public funding of political campaigns. In 2002 the state began a voluntary public financing campaign for state appellate judicial races for candidates who raised a threshold amount and agreed to contribution and spending limits. This year it has expanded that program to three Council of State races – State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Insurance Commissioner. Four of the six candidates in those races have qualified for the program this fall.

There's a lot riding on this system. It won't prevent the proliferation of independent committees and it won't keep big money out of politics. But it presents a rational way for candidates to mount an effective campaign without selling themselves out to those who simply want to buy access to political office.