In 2004, North Carolina implemented the nation’s first “Clean Elections” or “Voter-Owned Elections” program for statewide judicial candidates. The N.C. Public Campaign Fund is an alternative to the traditional campaign method of judges raising money from the attorneys and business interests who appear in their courts.
The program replaces this conflict of interest-laden system with one that allows candidates to receive a public campaign grant in exchange for accepting strict spending and fundraising limits. National experts have applauded the “strong and effective” program, and it is viewed as a model by other states seeking to address the corrosive impact of the money chase in their judicial elections.
Candidates for the NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals can qualify for a substantial campaign grant from the Public Campaign Fund if they abide by spending limits.and raise a specified number of small donations from NC voters. A qualified candidate can receive additional funds if a privately financed challenger or outside group exceeds the spending limit.
Our analysis below of the program’s success from 2004 to 2012 shows that the Public Campaign Fund was used by Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers, and all races and genders.
In fact, a majority of our state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals members are now Voter-Owned participants, meaning they received most of their campaign money from thousands of small donors and the public instead of from the lawyers who argue cases before their courts. As another report demonstrates, the percent of funds in appellate races supplied by attorneys and special-interest groups has plummeted from 73% of the donations in the election before the program began to 14% after it started.
The N.C. Public Campaign Fund also paid for a Voter Guide with information about the courts and candidates. Four million copies are mailed to households across the state before elections — an important service since statewide judicial candidates are often unknown to the public at large and people need a way to review their qualifications for these important high court seats.
A distinguished bipartisan panel oversaw the program with the State Board of Elections. It was headed by Willis Whichard, former judge and retired Dean of the Campbell University Law School.
In 2004, North Carolina began a voluntary program to address the inherent conflict of judges raising large amounts of money from attorneys who appear in their courts. The program provides a statewide voter guide and an alternative source of campaign money to candidates for the NC Supreme Court and Court of Appeals if they meet certain public trust conditions. Participation is voluntary. Candidates can raise campaign money the old-fashioned way, from private donors, OR they can qualify for a competitive amount of campaign money from the NC Public Campaign Fund – IF they accept strict fundraising limits and demonstrate broad public support by raising hundreds of qualifying donations from registered NC voters.
A bipartisan group of NC business and civic leaders wrote state legislators to encourage their continued support of the program. The letter was signed by former Gov. Jim Holshouser, Gov. Jim Martin and Gov. Jim Hunt, a dozen former presidents of the State Bar and NC Bar Association, and hundreds of other leaders. The May 2011 letter concluded:
“. . . we join together to urge you to protect the integrity of the judicial system and preserve the judicial public financing program and Public Campaign Fund. Many of us would prefer a different model for selecting judges, but as long as we elect the members of our state’s top courts, we should continue this vital program.”
The American Bar Association has heralded North Carolina’s innovative program as a model for the nation. Its framework has now been used for judicial public financing programs in New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia. A 2009 report by the Center for Government Studies says:
“North Carolina established the nation’s first effective public campaign financing program for judicial elections in 2004. . . . The program increases public confidence in the courts by eliminating [the chase for] political contributions in judicial elections.”
“Many of us would prefer a different model for selecting judges, but as long as we elect the members of our state’s top courts, we should continue this vital program.”” –Former NC Govs. Jim Holshouser, Gov. Jim Martin and Gov. Jim Hunt, in a letter signed by a dozen former presidents of the State Bar and NC Bar Association, and hundreds of other leaders
To get access to public funds, the candidate first must raise donations of $10-$500 from at least 350 registered voters, adding up to at least $39,450. Candidates went well beyond the minimum and engaged a large number of small donors.
The program has gained widespread use by candidates across the political spectrum, including all 8 appellate candidates in 2012. Several have tried but failed to meet the public support test.
The public grant supplements the qualifying donations; together, they provide a viable amount of funding for a campaign. The candidate can raise up to about $80,000 of private donations from hundreds of voters and then receive the public grant. In 2012, qualifying candidates for Supreme Court Associate Justice received $240,100 and Court of Appeals candidates received $164,400.
One objective of the program was to provide judicial candidates with an alternative source of “clean” funding so they did not need to rely so heavily on those who appear in their courtrooms. The program has replaced a dependency on self-interested money with public-interest money.
The Public Campaign Fund receives its income from two sources, which are sufficient to pay for grants to the candidates and mail 4 million Judicial Voter Guides to all households in the state.
The $3 voluntary check-off appears on the state income-tax form, but research shows that more than half the taxpayers are not aware of it, often because they are not asked the question by their tax preparer or they miss it on electronic and paper forms. Beginning in 2006, attorneys were required to pay a $50 surcharge on their dues to the State Bar. Attorneys in the NC General Assembly sponsored this addition because attorneys have a special obligation to protect the integrity of the court system; indeed, their livelihood depends on the public’s trust in the courts.