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Senate Budget Proposes Scrapping Publicly Financed Judicial Elections

North Carolina State Legislature
Dave Crosby

In 2002, North Carolina was the first state in the country to establish a system of full public financing for its high court judges. The law was enacted after huge sums of money began flooding into court elections across the country.

Many observers say the system helps take politics out of judicial elections and encourages the best candidates to run.  North Carolina’s judicial financing system is widely seen as a national model. Since it was created, legislators in New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia have been inspired to create their own public funding programs too.

But Republican lawmakers in the Senate have proposed getting rid of the program in their budget plan. Democratic Senator Floyd McKissick asked Republican Senator Pete Brunstetter why in a committee meeting yesterday.

"Why would we want to eliminate it, said McKissick, "particularly when it’s been so well received for the most part, and I think it helps in some respects depoliticize some of these campaigns which I’m deeply concerned about, particularly those running for judicial offices in this state?"

Brunstetter replied: "I think the answer is, you and I look at that program completely differently."

The program allows qualified candidates for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court seats to receive around $240,000 for their campaigns, if they agree to limit their expenditures. But Brunstetter says these days, that’s not enough to run for office.

"If you adjusted fees to make a statewide candidate be able to run a statewide race, it would just be too expensive to administer the program at all." - Peter Brunstetter

"And yet if you adjusted fees or you adjusted amounts to make a statewide candidate be able to run a statewide race, it would just be too expensive to administer the program at all," said Brunstetter.

To begin the qualification process, judicial candidates must raise between ten and $500 from at least 350 registered voters- to show they have widespread support. But Republican Senator Bob Rucho says if the system is scrapped, voters can still contribute money to their favorite judicial candidates.

Rucho said " if people wish to give it, then they can still give it individually or through some other organization. And it was just a matter of saying we’re trying to make this entire system simpler."

But not all Republican lawmakers agree that getting rid of public financing for judicial candidates is a good idea. "I think it does give the opportunity for judges to be judges without having to focus as much on being politicians," said Representative David Lewis, who chairs the House Elections Committee.

Lewis agrees with his counterparts in the Senate that $240,000 to run a state Supreme Court race isn’t enough. Right now, Court of Appeals candidates receive around $164,000 dollars for their races. He says those numbers were set when everything cost less.

"That was ten years ago. And I think you will see that if the program survives, that the mechanical aspects of it will probably change," said Lewis.

Lewis convened a special committee meeting earlier today that featured a former judge from West Virginia to talk about the merits of the public financing program in his state. North Carolina Voters For Clean Elections sponsored Republican John McCuskey’s visit. McCuskey says some judicial candidates really don’t like the idea of having to raise lots of money to get elected.

"Maybe they wouldn’t be good legislators or governors, but they might well be good judges, and you don’t wanna discourage people that really don’t like that aspect of running for office- having to raise great deals of money- from being in the pool. And this puts them in the pool," said McCuskey.

It’s not clear yet whether lawmakers in the House will suggest scrapping the public financing model in their budget plan. Governor McCrory suggested ending it in his budget proposal. Representative David Lewis says he’d like to hold at least one more hearing on the issue.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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