On November 3rd 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the North Carolina judicial public financing case, Duke v. Leake. The decision effectively upholds the Fourth Circuit’s decision confirming the constitutionality of North Carolina’s public financing system.
Many national organizations concerned with the increasing special interests influence on judicial elections were watching this case with great interest. North Carolina’s public financing system was one of the first in the nation and is often held out as the model for other states hoping to reduce the amount of money that has been pouring into judicial campaigns in those states with judicial elections.
As John Trimble noted in an earlier post to this blog, surveys have shown that the public’s confidence has been eroded by virtue of special interest money that has been pouring into judicial campaigns. According to a recent North Carolina Center for Voter Education survey, 80% of voters are concerned about the impact that campaign spending by outside groups has on campaigns for state and local office. While public finance systems will not eliminate campaign contributions by individuals or interest groups, they have proven to be effective in neutralizing the influence of large, single interest groups or donors.
Public finance systems also appear to be favored by voters, who may be tiring of the relentless attack ads that typically sprout when large amounts of money are sprinkled over judicial election landscapes. In 2005, as North Carolina’s public finance system was being challenged on First Amendment and Equal Protection grounds, a poll conducted by a conservative polling firm found that 74 percent of North Carolina voters approved of continuing the system. Only 18 percent opposed its continuation. North Carolina lawyers comprising the defense bar can be counted in agreement. Brian Beverly of Young Moore & Henderson, P.A. in Raleigh, who is current president of the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, offered “our Association continues to favor and work toward a system of merit selection for our judiciary. However, while judicial elections remain in place public financing is certainly a positive step.”
In the short term the Supreme Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case provides proponents of public finance systems with an enormous boost in their efforts to convince other states with judicial elections to adopt similar systems. In many of those states the public has grown weary of stories about campaign contributions to candidates who may someday have cases as sitting judges with those very donors before them as parties. In the few states that have adopted public finance systems, let’s hope this decision will have the desired effect of maintaining a judiciary that is without fear or favor.