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For immediate release.
Oct. 27, 2011
Charles Hall, Justice At Stake Campaign, 202-588-9454 or
Bryan Warner, N.C. Center for Voter Education, 877-258-6837 or
Report: Attack on N.C. Public Financing Mirrors National Campaign
N.C. Program Cited as ‘National Model’ in Study of 2009-10 High-Court Elections
RALEIGH – A recent assault on North Carolina’s public financing of court elections was part of an unprecedented national attack on state courts, according to a new report by three nonpartisan legal reform groups, which praised the Tar Heel State’s system as a “national model.”
In the months following Election Day 2010, “legislatures across the country unleashed a ferocious round of attacks against impartial justice,” the report says, and a campaign to roll back public financing was part of the siege. The legislative attacks likely will resume as soon as statehouses open their doors in 2012.
“The story of the 2009-10 elections, and their aftermath in state legislatures in 2011, reveals a coalescing national campaign that seeks to intimidate America’s state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law,” warns the report, entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2009-2010.”
The report was released today by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute for Money in State Politics. It is available at NewPoliticsReport.org.
“In North Carolina and elsewhere, we saw a withering assault on fair courts,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign. “These weren’t isolated proposals. The same special interests that have poured money into court elections used state legislatures to mount a national attack on impartial justice.”
“North Carolina’s judicial campaign reform efforts have been hailed as a national model to keep our courts free of special-interest influence,” said Damon Circosta, executive director of the non-partisan N.C. Center for Voter Education. “It’s a shame to see a faction in the legislature place rigid ideology in front of a proven strategy to keep courts fair and impartial.”
“We saw the money chase overtaking judicial elections in other states and we wanted no part of that here,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. “After just one cycle with a public financing option, special-interest money in our state appellate elections dropped from 73 to 14 percent of the candidates’ campaign funds.”
A series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 has highlighted skyrocketing special-interest spending that has altered the face of state Supreme Court contests and eroded public confidence in fair and impartial courts.
The report hailed North Carolina’s judicial election law, saying that “since its launch in the 2004 Supreme Court election, North Carolina’s public financing system has been a national model. About 75 percent of all candidates have participated in the voluntary system, including women, minorities and members of both parties.”
Public financing protects fair courts, because judges do not have to seek large contributions from parties who appear before them in court. Polls in North Carolina and elsewhere have shown broad, bipartisan support for public financing of judicial elections.
According to a national poll released today (PDF), 74 percent favor public financing of judicial elections, while only 15 percent are opposed. The poll shows that 83 percent of voters believe campaign contributions have a “great deal” or “some” influence on a judge’s decisions.
When a North Carolina legislator tried to introduce a measure ending public financing as an amendment in the state House, he had to withdraw it after “bedlam” erupted, the report noted. The legislature adjourned for the summer without enacting another plan to make all judicial elections partisan contests.
North Carolina is one of four states that adopted public financing for judicial elections over the last decade, as spending soared on state high-court elections. Legislators in two other states mounted attacks on public financing in the wake of the 2010 elections, and in Wisconsin, the system was scrapped in 2011, after just one publicly financed high-court election.
Other attacks coming from state legislatures included challenges to merit selection systems for choosing judges and threats to impeach judges for unpopular decisions.
“Cumulatively, these attacks represented a historically significant concerted attack on judicial independence, and on various reforms intended to reduce the influence of money and politics on state courts,” the report said.
Nationally, state high-court candidates and special-interest groups spent $38.4 million on state high-court elections in 2009-10, and a growing portion of that money was spent by a small number of secretive special-interest groups.
The $38.4 million was somewhat less than the amount spent in the last non-presidential election cycle, in 2005-06. However, $16.8 million was spent on TV advertising, making 2009-10 the costliest non-presidential cycle for TV spending in judicial elections.
About the Organizations
Justice at Stake Campaign
The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan national partnership working to keep our courts fair, impartial and free from special-interest and partisan agendas. In states across America, Campaign partners work to protect our courts through public education, grass-roots organizing and reform. The Campaign provides strategic coordination and brings organizational, communications and research resources to the work of its partners and allies at the national, state and local levels.
The Brennan Center for Justice
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. Our work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from racial justice in criminal law to presidential power in the fight against terrorism. A singular institution – part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group – the Brennan Center combines scholarship, legislative and legal advocacy, and communications to win meaningful, measurable change in the public sector.
The National Institute on Money in State Politics
The National Institute on Money in State Politics collects, publishes, and analyzes data on campaign money in state elections. The database dates back to the 1990 election cycle for some states and is comprehensive for all 50 states since the 1999–2000 election cycle. The Institute has compiled a 50-state summary of state supreme court contribution data from 1989 through the present, as well as complete, detailed databases of campaign contributions for all state high-court judicial races beginning with the 2000 elections.