Commentary

This morning’s “must read” op-ed: Bring back public financing for judicial elections

The best op-ed in North Carolina newspapers this morning comes from Melissa Price Kromm, Executive Director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections and can be found in Raleigh’s News & Observer. Here are some highlights from “NC should restore public funding for judicial elections”:

“For nearly a decade North Carolina enjoyed a widely popular and effective election system that gave state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates limited funds to run competitive campaigns without having to solicit money from special interests who may later appear before them in court. In 2013, Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature eliminated the program over the objections of business and civic leaders, former governors, a dozen former presidents of the State Bar Association, the American Bar Association and hundreds of other public leaders.

The result has been unsurprising and follows a troubling trend threatening fair and impartial courts in states around the country. In 2014, the first North Carolina Supreme Court election without public financing since 2002 saw candidates spend more than $6 million on top of another $2 million spent by special interest groups and political parties. That money funded some of the nastiest political attack ads in the state’s history. Justice for All, with funding from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national super PAC funded by corporations and wealthy individuals to elect Republicans to state office, spent $900,000 on an ad falsely accusing North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson of siding with child molesters in the courtroom.

A growing body of research has documented the negative effects all of this campaign spending can have on court decisions after Election Day. The ‘soft on crime’ ads run against Justice Hudson are particularly troubling. A 2015 study found that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court elections, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants.

Several studies have also shown that the more campaign contributions from business interests justices receive, the more likely they are to vote for business litigants appearing before them in court.”

Kromm rightfully points out that this is not how our court system is supposed to work. The courts should be open to all and completely unbiased. The idea of big money special interests essentially buying our judges ought to make all of us sick to our stomachs. Here’s her excellent conclusion:

“To be sure, our system of public financing judicial elections was not perfect since, with or without the program, judges will still have to contend with outside groups spending hundreds of thousands or millions on ads for and against them. But when the program was in place, 80 percent of candidates participated and were able to run competitive campaigns without creating potential conflicts of interest down the road.

In the long-term we need a constitutional amendment or a new U.S. Supreme Court that allows common-sense limits on how much special interest groups can spend in elections.

Let’s hope our governor and legislature are listening to the judges who have to run in the current system and spare us from yet another judicial election dominated by special interest spending.”

Click here to read the entire op-ed.

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