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Expert pans NC plan to ditch judicial public financing

In case you missed it in today’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer, lawyer Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University authored a powerful plea for state lawmakers to keep our state’s excellent public fundingsystem for judicial candidates:

“Voters and judges in North Carolina agree that justice should not be for sale. Unfortunately, the legislature and governor look poised to eliminate a successful program that helps judicial candidates say no to special interest money.

North Carolina elects its judges. Judicial races cost money, and not surprisingly, the lawyers and parties who regularly appear in court are also the most likely to contribute to judges’ campaigns, creating troubling conflicts of interest for judges and hurting public confidence in the judicial process. After North Carolina started seeing multi-million dollar judicial races in the early 2000s, the state came up with an innovative solution – a public financing system where candidates can opt out of the money race and still run competitive campaigns.

To qualify, candidates have to show they have broad public support and must agree to limit their fundraising. In exchange, they receive public funding to run a campaign – about $240,000 for Supreme Court candidates and $160,000 for candidates for the Court of Appeals. The program gives would-be judges the resources to run competitive races without relying on special interest dollars.

It has been a big success.

In 2002, the last year without public financing, 73 percent of campaign funds for judicial candidates came from attorneys and special interest groups. After public financing was introduced in 2004, that number dropped to 14 percent. Last year, every single candidate for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals opted to receive public financing.

Voters like the system too. In a 2011 poll by the Justice at Stake Campaign and the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, 94 percent of North Carolina voters said that they believe campaign contributions have some sway on a judge’s decision, and 79 percent believe it is a very serious problem when judges receive campaign contributions from a party with a case pending before the court. According to the poll, twice as many voters said they believe public financing reduces the potential for corruption in the courts as said it made no difference.

Despite the program’s successes, bills in the House and Senate are seeking to eliminate public financing. Proponents of this effort argue that public financing is not a good use of taxpayer dollars and that cutting funding will save the state money. The governor and legislature should reject this misguided effort….”

Read the rest of this Bannon’s essay by clicking here.

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