Money is still tight in North Carolina, except in politics. With a key U.S. Senate race topping the ballot, expect tens of millions of dollars to be spent by candidates for state and national offices in 2014.
That’s nothing new for partisan political races, but big spending will mark an unwelcome reversal when it comes to statewide judicial campaigns. The legislature unwisely changed finance laws governing contests for the N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Only residents who think spending more money to elect judges will improve the quality and impartiality of our courts will be happy.
The major change was to kill the public funding option, which provided qualifying candidates with about $250,000 to run their campaigns. It meant they could not rely on wealthy lawyers and special-interest groups for support and therefore were not beholden to them.
Some of this money came from taxpayers; most was collected from a $50 annual fee paid by attorneys. It afforded a fair system that more than 80 percent of candidates chose to participate in over the past decade.
While eliminating this option, the legislature also raised the amount of money an individual donor can give to a judicial candidate from $1,000 to $5,000. The higher limit multiplies the potential influence and inflates the likely campaign budgets of candidates for the state’s courts.
Who’s going to contribute $5,000 to a judicial candidate? Let’s hope only those citizens who want to help the most qualified, experienced and honest individuals win these very important offices. Let’s also hope the generous donors aren’t people who have particular agendas and aim to get a return on their sizable investment.
The stakes are high. Four of seven Supreme Court seats are up for election in 2014, including that of retiring Chief Justice Sarah Parker. Although the court is officially nonpartisan, and generally does not rule in an obviously partisan way, political interests tend to view the court through partisan lenses. They note that four justices are registered Republicans and three are registered Democrats. This narrow divide will prompt efforts on one side to flip the ratio and on the other to hold it. Millions of dollars may be spent to accomplish these purposes, by outside groups and by the candidates themselves.
In the 2012 election, Justice Paul Newby was aided by independent spending notable for an often-aired TV ad that portrayed him as a lawman chasing down crooks with bloodhounds — as if he were running for sheriff in a backwoods county.
If that’s what more money in judicial campaigns will buy, it won’t serve voters or the integrity of the courts well.
Whom will it serve? Why did the legislature open to door to greater big-money influence in judicial races? Why were these changes tucked into a sweeping election reform bill highlighted by a voter ID requirement that drew almost all the attention?
Those questions ought to concern North Carolina residents who value the fair and impartial administration of justice. This is not where more money needs to be spent.