Chasing money wrong for judges

Mar. 01, 2014 @ 08:52 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

State judicial candidates are raising money like it's 2002.

The public finance system has been killed, so it's back to hitting up lawyers and lobbyists for most of the money needed to fuel statewide campaigns — maybe more money than ever.

Public financing, which provided qualifying candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court with about $240,000, and less than $200,000 for Court of Appeals contenders, accomplished two things: It produced a more level playing field, and it held down total campaign spending.

The restraints are off. In repealing this program last year, the state legislature also lifted donation limits. Individuals can contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate for statewide judicial office during an election cycle. Previously, candidates qualified for public funding by collecting contributions of $500 or less from 350 individual donors.

Now that individuals can give 10 times as much, candidates may raise and spend more money, and the potential for undue influence is multiplied.

So far, the amounts raised aren't astronomical. But totals have only been reported for 2013, before the election year opened. Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin, running for the chief's seat, had collected nearly $188,000. If he draws an opponent, he'll certainly raise much more. All the way back in 2000, then-Chief Justice Henry Frye of Greensboro spent more than $900,000. That total was a motivating force behind the adoption of a public finance system.

Following its inception in 2004, the program grew increasingly accepted. Only 12 of 21 total candidates participated in 2004 and 2006, but all candidates used public funds since then, while agreeing to abide by overall spending limits.

Last year, however, legislators resurrected the argument that taxpayers should not have to fund campaigns for candidates they would not otherwise support. While much of the funding came from a $50 annual fee paid by all licensed lawyers, taxpayers covered some costs, too.

Yet, they benefited by the election of judges on the state's highest courts who would not owe their positions to wealthy contributors and special-interest groups. When cases come up dealing with violations of environmental regulations, for example, would the public trust in the impartiality of judges whose campaigns received contributions from the alleged polluters? That wasn't possible under the public finance system.

Elections are a poor means of choosing judges, anyway. They should be appointed based on the recommendations of a nonpartisan commission made up of people able to weigh the legal qualifications of applicants. After a term on the bench, judges could be subject to a retention election that gave voters the chance to remove them. Some other states use that system, which reduces opportunities for political and financial influence.

An appointment system would not eliminate politics. But elections favor politicians, not necessarily people who would make the best judges. Throw in unlimited amounts of money and the risk of bad outcomes is too high.