Candidate Fundraising Skyrockets After Loss of Public Financing

What happens when politicians eliminate a judicial public financing system? North Carolinians know the answer.

2014 marked the first state Supreme Court election in North Carolina since politicians dismantled the state’s judicial public financing system, in which participating state Supreme Court and intermediate appellate court candidates could receive public funds for their campaigns while agreeing to limits on fundraising.

Two-thirds of all candidates running in North Carolina Supreme Court primary and general elections participated in the program during the years it was in effect (2004-12). 1 During this period, state Supreme Court candidates who participated raised an average of $75,000 and received an average of $180,000 in public funds per election.

All of that changed in 2013 when legislators voted to scrap the system, raising contribution limits at the same time. As the National Journal observed about Justice Robin Hudson’s 2014 reelection race:

Her campaign had to be different than the one she ran eight years earlier, when she relied on public financing. “We’re kind of back to the Wild West,” [Hudson said]. Where once she asked for $500 contributions, she now solicits $5,000 checks, often making the calls herself. “I’ve basically got two full-time jobs: A full-time job running a campaign. And a full-time job on the court. I’ve had to spend time on the phone when I can.” 2

Another high court justice, Cheri Beasley, told a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate that she reads briefs and writes opinions in the early morning or late at night because her daytime hours are spent making fundraising calls. 3

Predictably, with limits off, the judicial candidates shattered previous fundraising records. They collectively raised almost $4 million, the highest amount recorded in North Carolina since the New Politics report series began and substantially more than the $2.8 million raised in 2006, the last time the state had an election for four state Supreme Court seats. On average, candidates raised $440,000 each.

NC Judges Letter
Letter from North Carolina appellate judges urging preservation of public financing for judicial elections

Many North Carolina judges agree that public financing was a better way. In 2013, nearly every judge on the court of appeals signed a letter to the North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem urging the legislature to preserve the system. 4 “If I have to campaign, this is a much better way to do it,” said Court of Appeals Judge Wanda Bryant in an interview, “to have some sort of judiciary not beholden to big money influence. This program ensures there can be confidence that people are running on a level playing field.” 5

Notes:

  1. Chris Kromm, How Art Pope Killed Clean Elections for Judges in North Carolina, Facing South (June 13, 2013), http://www.southernstudies.org/2013/06/how-art-pope-killed-clean-elections-for-judges-in-.html.
  2. James Oliphant, When Cash Turns Judges into Politicians, National Journal (Oct. 18, 2014), http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/when-cash-turns-judges-into-politicians-20141017.
  3. Tom Bullock, The Awkward World of Judicial Stump Speeches, WFAE 90.7 (Mar. 18, 2014), http://wfae.org/post/awkward-world-judicial-stump-speeches.
  4. Letter from John C. Martin, Chief Judge, et al., to Phil Berger, President Pro-Tempore (May 30, 2013), http://thevoterupdate.com/downloads/2013/coa_letter_ncga.pdf. See also NC Appeals Court Judges Want to Keep Current Campaign System, 14news.com (Jun 4, 2013, 10:46 PM), http://www.14news.com/story/22504113/appeals-court-judges.
  5. Molly Parker, Judicial Races Could Soon Be Off the Public Tab, Star News Online (June 22, 2013), http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20130622/ARTICLES/130629868/-1/news38?p=2&tc=pg&tc=ar.