There are a lot of disturbing indicators these days about the future of American democracy and the growing power of a narrow class of one-percenters. For a classic, close-to-home example, however, North Carolinians need only to take a good look at what’s been happening to the state’s judiciary in recent years as conservative political forces and the politicians under their control have moved to assert more and more control.
Nowhere is this troubling trend more evident that in the field of campaign finance laws.
From 2004-2013, North Carolina worked to sharply reduce the influence of partisan politics and special interests in judicial races through the N.C. Public Campaign Fund. Financed by a $3 voluntary check-off on state tax returns and a $50 annual fee from attorneys, the fund was available to judicial candidates who raised at least 350 small donations and agreed to strict spending limits. Eighty percent of eligible candidates – conservatives and liberals – used this voluntary program. Aside from candidates’ own family money, the percentage of money raised for North Carolina judicial campaigns that came from special interest PACs or attorneys dropped from 73 percent to 14 percent.
Because of the program’s success, it enjoyed widespread support in the state. In 2013, members of the state’s Court of Appeals took the unusual step of publicly calling on legislative leaders to keep the program. Every leading newspaper in the state wrote editorials backing the program. Former governors Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Holshouser, a Republican, joined to voice support. Jesse Helms’ old GOP polling firm, the Tarrance Group, found that 68 percent of North Carolinians would be less likely to back a legislator who “supported an electoral system where money would have a greater role in judicial elections.”
Yet, in the eyes of conservative leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly and their allies, voluntary public financing needed to be abolished. Though they derided public financing for elections as “welfare for politicians,” what they really feared from the program was the fact that it meant that elected judges were accountable to the public, not to special interests who appear before them (and who fund the campaigns of legislative leaders as well). In 2013, therefore, lawmakers and Governor McCrory repealed the program.
Now flash forward a year to the 2014 state Supreme Court elections. With public financing eliminated, special interest funding soared. During that election, more than $6 million dollars quickly poured in from lobbyists, lawyers, business interests, political action committees, so-called “527 groups” and political parties. It was the most expensive election in the court’s history and the second most expensive judicial election in the United States.
Sadly, the story gets even worse. Last year, in another brazen move to reduce the power of average North Carolinians, the General Assembly passed a law that would have allowed incumbent justices the option to avoid all contested elections in the future. Instead, members of the Supreme Court would have simply had to run in uncontested “retention” elections in which voters could only choose whether or not to keep them on the bench. What’s more if a justice somehow got enough “no” votes to be removed from office, the Governor would name his or her replacement for the next two years.
Proponents of the retention scheme claimed that it would somehow reduce big money in judicial elections, but critics responded that its real impact would have been to lock in the current court structure and assure even less of a voice for average citizens.
Happily, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel found the retention plan unconstitutional, but now, in an awkward development, the case will go before state Supreme Court in the coming days – thus placing justices in the extremely tough position of deciding how they themselves will run for re-election. Justice Bob Edmunds, whose term expires this year, has already recused himself from the case.
Let’s hope the justices do the right thing by sustaining the ruling that struck down the law, but, ultimately, there’s an even better long-term solution. Instead of putting our judges in such an untenable position and endangering our democracy, state leaders should simply return to the system that worked so well before.
And those of us who want to preserve government of the people, by the people, and for the people, need to remind them of this fact constantly.
Melissa Price Kromm is the Director of the North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections.