Recent “pay-to-play” allegations that have surfaced in media reports focused on members of the executive and legislative branches in North Carolina.
It probably won’t be long before we hear of similar accusations in the judicial branch.
A recent report from Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics showed more than $6 million was spent on judicial elections in North Carolina in the most recent election cycle. That ranked North Carolina second in the nation, behind only Michigan.
And while North Carolina and its cities often rank high among the states for business climate and best places to live, this ranking isn’t one to boast about.
According to the report, appropriately titled “Bankrolling the Bench,” about 95 percent of all cases initiated in the United States are filed in state courts. State Supreme Courts, the final authorities on state law, address issues such as education, the environment, contract and commercial disputes, voting rights, criminal justice, real estate, health care and corporate accountability.
“Yet while these decisions affect people’s everyday lives in significant ways, the culture of influence from well-to-do donors and special interests may threaten the ability of judges to deliver impartial justice,” the report noted.
Nine candidates for four open seats on the N.C. Supreme Court raised $4 million during the cycle, also breaking candidate fundraising records. It was the first Supreme Court election without public financing since 2002, after the General Assembly eliminated it in 2013. Through public financing, taxpayer money helped cover the cost of judicial campaigns, reducing the influence of donors.
Campaign cash has an oversized influence on judicial elections because voters in these races often have little or no information about the candidates. As a result, according to the report, even a little spending on campaign ads and literature can move the needle in these races. In 21 of the 23 contested Supreme Court seats across the country during the cycle, the candidate who raised the most money won.
Without public financing, judicial candidates sought the financial backing of lawyers and lobbyists, whose donations made up more than 40 percent of all campaign contributions.
“Judges asking lawyers to give them campaign money is the definition of conflict of interest,” comedian John Oliver said in a rant about judicial elections included in the report.
Also, more than $2 million in outside spending by interest groups and political parties put North Carolina third in non-candidate spending. The Republican State Leadership Committee was the biggest single source, contributing $1.3 million to Justice for All NC, which ran high-profile TV ads claiming that Justice Robin Hudson was “not tough on child molesters.” Hudson won re-election despite the attack ads, which anyone with a TV remembers.
As we’ve seen in recent media reports, contributions to political candidates in North Carolina can leave a perception — if not a reality — that politicians are making decisions to help well-heeled donors, so-called “pay-to-play” politics.
And such a perception, when it comes to the courts, shouldn’t be tolerated at any level.
Patrick Gannon writes about North Carolina government and politics for the Capitol Press Association.