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Big money pouring in for judicial elections.  Legislators slashing court funding and trying to eliminate judges.

That might sound like the state of things here in North Carolina, but as discussed in this ABA Journal piece, the war on state courts is being waged in plenty of places across the country.

Says former ABA President Stephen Zack:

The legislature would very much like legislative supremacy, but our Constitution requires judicial supremacy. It’s an inherent conflict that makes our democracy work. Our judiciary tells the legislature when they can’t do what they want to do. As a result [of the conflict] we have legislators, instead of deferring to the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government, treating the judiciary like an agency—as if it were a library or another bridge project—and that’s not what it is.

In case you missed it, Billy Corriher, a native North Carolinian and current Associate Director of Research at Legal Progress– a branch of the Washington, DC-based Center for American Progress — has an excellent “For the record” essay in the Charlotte Observer.

How Art Pope killed a popular judicial financing program

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. Read More

Chris Kromm has a must-read post today over at Facing South, the blog of the Institute for Southern Studies entitled “How Art Pope killed clean elections for judges in North Carolina.” 

Art Pope 3“On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11, as the North Carolina House jousted over details of the state budget, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican attorney from the state’s mountain region, decided to help the legislature reach a compromise on a thorny problem.

At issue was the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, a popular program launched in 2003 to help free judges from relying on deep-pocketed — and potentially compromising — special interest donors to get elected. Eighty percent of eligible judges — conservatives and liberals — used the voluntary program, which awarded candidates a grant to help run their campaign if they raised at least 350 small donations and agreed to strict spending limits. Read More

Despite overwhelming support for the program from judges, voters and former governors, Republicans in the House have stepped in line with the Governor and their colleagues in the Senate and proposed in their budget, released today (at page 12), to eliminate public funding for judicial campaigns. 

Someone is really holding their feet to the fire on this one.

A new survey by a Republican polling firm finds that legislators may want to think twice before scrapping North Carolina’s embattled judicial public financing program. Here’s more on the findings from North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections:

‘The poll, conducted by a firm that has worked for Sen. Jesse Helms and many leading conservatives, shows that 67 percent of Republican women especially like the fact that the program has increased female representation on the state’s top courts – and by a 57 percent majority, they are less likely to vote for lawmakers who end the public financing option and allow money to play a greater role in judicial elections. Overall, a super-majority (68 percent) of voters said they would hold lawmakers accountable at the polls for ending judicial public financing.

Sixty-one percent of voters are particularly worried about the potential for corruption if the program is eliminated and say the program “should remain in place because even the hint of bribery is too much in our judicial system.”

poll released last month by the NC Center for Voter Education indicates the program has broad support, with backing by 67 percent of Republican voters and 65 percent of independents.

The new poll by the Republican-leaning Tarrance Group was commissioned by NC Voters for Clean Elections and delved into more specifics on voters’ feelings about the program. Leaders from both parties came together in 2004 to implement the Public Campaign Fund, in order to relieve judicial candidates from the big-money chase. Contrary to the pessimism about government programs, supporters say this one has clearly worked.

A majority of the NC Supreme Court justices are now women for the first time in history – and all have used the program to win election. Overall, 80 percent of appellate court candidates have used the program, including all four African-Americans appellate judges elected since 2004 and eight of the ten Republicans who won contested elections.

Despite years of success and bipartisan support, the program is under attack. The state Senate eliminates the program in its budget bill passed recently, and a similar provision was proposed by the governor’s budget. Read More