Public financing makes the case: A judge should be beholden to no one

Staff Writer

Soliciting taken out of judicial races.

Public Financing Makes The Case: A Judge Should Be Beholden To No One.

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Sarah Parker of Charlotte has been through five previous statewide general elections.

She's never raised more than $100,000 for her campaigns.

This year, Parker has more than $200,000 to finance her bid for re-election. Most of it is public money.

In a novel experiment that's drawn national attention, North Carolina is using public money for the first time to finance campaigns for the state's highest courts.

Parker is among a dozen candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals who are financing their campaigns with public money.

Parker, 62, served on the state appeals court for eight years and has been on the state supreme court for nearly 12 years. Historically, North Carolina's judicial candidates have financed their campaigns by soliciting donations -- a practice that Parker worries has the potential to compromise the integrity of the judiciary.

"People expect judges to be independent, unbiased, fair and impartial," she said. "Asking for money diminishes the judiciary in the eyes of the public.

"I think public financing helps promote the independence of the judiciary. I don't think it's a panacea. But it helps minimize fund raising."

The public money, Parker said, frees her from the burden of soliciting money.

"Now I can spend my time talking to voters and educating them about who I am and what my record is," she said.

(In South Carolina, voters elect probate judges, and the legislature appoints the rest.)

The public financing of N.C. judicial elections isn't the only new twist to this year's elections to the state's highest courts. For the first time, candidates seeking judgeships on the supreme court and appeals court are running in nonpartisan elections.

That means the party affiliation of the 16 candidates vying for two seats on the supreme court and three seats on the appeals court won't be disclosed on ballots.

As Linda McGee campaigns across North Carolina, her political party affiliation doesn't always come up.

McGee, seeking to retain her seat on the N.C. Court of Appeals, hopes voters focus on her qualifications -- not her party affiliation.

"I've been a lifelong Democrat," McGee, 55, of Hickory, said. "But I don't think my party affiliation is what most voters are interested in.

"I hope they're interested in my qualifications and experience. I've served on the court of appeals for nine years and have 17 years of experience in courtrooms as a lawyer."

But N.C. Court of Appeals Judge John Tyson, a Republican, worries that not having party affiliations on the ballots deprives voters of information that might help them decide whom to vote for.

"It's one less piece of information available to the voters," he said.

Tyson, who is seeking a supreme court judgeship, is among the dozen judicial candidates who opted to use public money to finance their campaigns. He believes that gives candidates the opportunity to get their message to voters without having to ask for contributions.

"I don't have to make a financial pitch," Tyson, 51, said. "I can speak to groups and people without having to ask for contributions."

The goal of the 2002 law providing the public financing is to remove the corrosive effects of money from judicial races and allow candidates to concentrate on telling voters why they should vote for them. It also means judicial candidates won't have to solicit money from citizens and lawyers who might appear before them in court.

Underwriting the campaign election fund, however, has been a challenge.

State officials had hoped to raise about $1.8 million for the fund. The money was to come from contributions from taxpayers and donations from lawyers across the state. Three dollars went to the fund each time a taxpayer checked the box on his or her income tax form for the N.C. Public Campaign Financing Fund.

Donations and checkoffs from taxpayers have brought in less than expected. Even so, about $2 million has been put together for the fund. Additional money came from an old campaign finance fund and grants.

About $1.5 million has been divvied up among 12 of the candidates.

The fund also is paying for a judicial voter guide designed to educate voters about the new way judges to the state's highest courts are being elected and how many of their campaigns are being financed with public money.

The voter guide also gives information about each of the 16 candidates, including where they live and their education and legal experience. Each candidate also has a personal statement.

The guide will be mailed this month to nearly 4 million households across the state. Printing and mailing will cost nearly $500,000.

The judicial candidates for the state's highest court don't automatically get the public money. To qualify, they must agree to limit fund raising and spending.

They must also demonstrate they have at least some public support. The candidates must receive contributions from at least 350 N.C. registered voters. Each contribution must be between $10 and $500.

Candidates for the appeals court must raise between $33,150 and $66,300. Supreme court candidates must raise between $34,590 and $69,180.

All six of the candidates who are vying for three judgeships on the appeals court sought money from the public campaign fund. One of them wasn't able to raise enough money to qualify for the public financial help.

The five appeals court candidates who qualified received $138,125 each.

Seven of the 10 candidates seeking two judgeships on the supreme court are financing their campaigns with the public money. One did not qualify.

Two of the candidates opted not to participate. They can raise and spend as much as they can.

The supreme court candidates who qualified were supposed to get $201,775 each. Two candidates vying for one of the judgeships got that much. But because eight candidates filed for one of the supreme court judgeships, there wasn't enough money in the fund to give each of them the full share. The five each received about $80,000.

Rachel Lea Hunter, a 43-year-old Durham lawyer, decided she didn't want any public money for her bid for a supreme court judgeship.

"I don't believe taxpayers should be funding judicial campaigns or any election campaigns," Hunter said. "I don't think that's a proper use of governmental funds."

Barbara Jackson, general counsel for the N.C. Department of Labor, was one of the two judicial candidates who didn't raise enough money to qualify for the public money.

"Not being an incumbent makes it difficult to raise money," Jackson said. "There are a lot of candidates who are asking folks for money and a limited number of people who give money."

Jackson, who has taken a leave of absence from her job to run for an appeals court judgeship, said she managed to raise about $11,000.

Now Jackson, 42, knows she will have to juggle campaigning and fund raising, while her opponent already has much more money.

"It certainly would have been easier to have been handed a check for $138,000 than to be out beating the bushes asking for money and trying to campaign at the same time," Jackson said. -- STAFF WRITER NICHOLE MONROE BELL CONTRIBUTED.


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