Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Florida rule that bars judicial candidates from asking for campaign contributions.
In North Carolina, judges are allowed to personally solicit cash for their campaigns, but the Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar ruling means that North Carolina could join the 30 other states that limit personal solicitation by judges, if it wants to.
Writing for the majority, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts had this to say:
“Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. And a state’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office…Judges, charged with exercising strict neutrality and independence, cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity.”
Melissa Kromm, director of the advocacy group North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, said the group and its allies agree with the Supreme Court’s assessment of the role of judicial candidates during their campaigns, and says the group wants to emphasize this quote from Roberts:
“The public may lack confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice if he comes to office by asking favors.”
In a statement, national clean elections nonprofit Justice at Stake, praised the decision also, noting that personal campaigns solicitations by judges and judicial candidates are “entirely reasonable provisions that work to preserve public trust in our courts.”
“Today’s decision helps judges, by saving them from the compromising job of raising cash from people whose cases they decide,” said Laurie Kinney, the group’s communications director. “It helps our court system, by shoring up its ability to be fair and impartial. And it helps the public by reassuring them that they will not find themselves in court before a judge who has received a check directly from the opposing party in their case.”
But Kromm says it is difficult to square this decision—the first to come after the Court’s striking down campaign finance laws for years—with Citizens’ United. “How can the public have confidence in elected officials who cannot possibly come into office without asking for favors,” she wonders.
In 2013, multimillionaire political insider and then state budget director Art Pope killed North Carolina’s model for clean elections for judges.
North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections as well as lawyers from the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake had worked together to file House Bill 737, which would put in place a remodeled judicial public financing campaign program for the state, with bipartisan support.
Pope personally appeared at the General Assembly in June to quash an amendment from Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, which would have preserved the N.C. Public Campaign Fund. The fund had provided money for judicial campaigns since 2003, and was designed to keep candidates from relying on special interest donors, like Pope himself, though donors could still contribute to judicial campaigns.
Republicans pledged to support the measure but Jordan dropped it abruptly, after meeting with Pope. (Pope and Pope-affiliated groups had spent more than $100,000 on Jordan’s 2010 campaign, according to the Institute for Southern Studies.)
A study from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, examined the success rates of law firms that contributed to justices’ campaigns when they appeared before North Carolina’s Supreme Court from 1998 to 2010.
It found that among firms with several cases before the court each year, the ones that gave more campaign cash to judicial candidates had higher success rates than those which gave smaller donations. For example, in 1998, firms that donated $400 or more won 53 percent of their cases, compared to 48 percent of firms that gave less than $400; firms that gave more than $400 and had more than five cases before the court won 70 percent of their appeals, compared to 33 percent for firms with more than five cases which gave less than $400.
“These correlations, whether or not they reflect causation, sow doubt in the public’s mind about the impartiality of judges,” says Billy Corriher, the director of research for legal progress at the Center for American Progress. “A ban on personal solicitation in North Carolina could mitigate these concerns.”