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Jury out on judicial campaign reform 

N.C. Supreme Court race shows big-money donors and lawyers still influential

North Carolina's 2002 reforms to judicial campaign financing were supposed to reduce the power of private donors in judges' races, including limiting the role of donations from lawyers and others who have business in front of the courts.

But as candidates Robin Hudson, Donna Stroud and Linda Stephens--all recipients of the so-called "clean money" provided by public financing--told a crowd at a Democracy North Carolina gathering in Rocky Mount last week, challenges remain.

Hudson discussed the difficulties of gathering the qualifying donations. Stroud outlined the daunting complexity of campaign finance reporting requirements and funding shortfalls for the program. Stephens said that even attorneys remain ignorant of the ins and outs of the new law.

"The jury is still out on how it's all going to come together," Hudson said.

This year's campaign is proving as much.

In the race for chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, incumbent Sarah Parker faces Rusty Duke, a Superior Court Judge from Pitt County. Parker, who was appointed to her seat, is campaigning with public financing support; Duke has raised money privately.

The chief justice contest shows just how big-money donors and PACs still can wield considerable influence in judicial campaigns--publicly and privately funded alike.

To qualify for public financing, Parker, like any other candidate, had to collect at least 350 contributions of $10 to $500 from registered voters before the primary. Those contributions had to total at least $35,000.

Sidestepping one of the stated goals of public financing--reducing the number and amount of contributions from lawyers--Parker relied largely on attorneys to meet the fundraising goals, particularly members of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers and the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys. In an April 11 e-mail to members, leaders of the NCATL PAC wrote, "The rules applicable to public financing make fund-raisers unusually cumbersome and tricky.... Chief Justice Parker prefers to limit contributions from lawyers to $250, but the limited time remaining to achieve the goal is such that if someone wishes to contribute more, up to $500, it will be appreciated. Many supporters are encouraging their spouses to contribute as well to help Chief Justice Parker reach the required number of contributors."

Parker raised $74,215 in qualifying contributions from 685 donors, almost all of them attorneys and their spouses.

"The fact that the contributions come from lawyers is not something that I'm concerned with," says Parker. "A lawyer appearing before the court is in a representative capacity and they represent different clients before the court. It's not like you're getting money from a litigant."

She says that in the low-profile judges' races, lawyers know the candidates best. She says lawyers also understand that when they make contributions they are not gaining influence.

"Is it better to get money from lawyers or to get $2,000 from Joe Blow who, unbeknownst to me, has a case in the pipeline?"

By the numbers

N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals campaigns

  • Percent of campaign funds N.C.'s top judges received from attorneys and special interests before public campaign financing became available: 73% in 2002 election

  • Percent of funds from attorneys and special-interest groups after public financing began: 14% in 2004 election

  • Number of candidates for state's top courts who qualified in 2006 for public campaign financing: 8 out of 12

  • Funds each candidate receives from Public Campaign Fund made possible by $3 tax checkoff: from $144,500 to $216,650

  • Number of qualifying donations of $200 or less collected by Chief Justice Sarah Parker in 2006: 590

  • Number of $1,000 donations received by Parker's opponent, Rusty Duke, who opposes public financing: 155

  • Source: Follow-the-Money index from Democracy North Carolina, www.democracy-nc.org

    Duke's donors have contributed nearly $350,000 since he started accepting donations in March 2005--so much money that Parker became eligible for "rescue" funds to match Duke's contributions under a provision in the law aimed at preventing publicly financed candidates from being outpaced by their high-spending opponents.

    "Through my campaign, the state taxpayers have sent my opponent more than $100,000 and she hasn't even sent me a thank you note," Duke says.

    Duke staunchly opposes public financing, claiming that limiting financial contributions chills free speech and hurts the democratic process.

    "The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to say that giving money is a form of speech," Duke says. "It can be regulated. But it is a form of free speech." In 2005 Duke joined appellate judge Barbara Jackson and the N.C. Right to Life Committee Fund as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against several state officials, arguing that the public financing law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

    Far fewer lawyers fill the pages of Duke's campaign finance reports; more commonly, his donors are business leaders, builders and real estate developers. Duke has also successfully solicited thousands of dollars from several elite conservative donors: Bud Baker, the former CEO of Wachovia; Skip Orser, a former executive at Progress Energy; Henry Williamson, a former executive at BB&T; and James Culbertson, a member of the "Bush Rangers," a group of wealthy fundraisers who raised at least $200,000 each for the president's 2004 campaign.

    "I think that they are interested in having courts that go by the rule of law and not the rule of judges," Duke says, explaining that his supporters are looking to limit judicial activism and support candidates who will stay out of lawmaking. "They want an opportunity to be heard in the legislature."

    High-powered conservative fundraisers for former Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine and Sen. Richard Burr helped Duke raise money across the state. He has also tapped evangelical Christians for support. He was the keynote speaker at the Christian Coalition's God and Country banquet, according to news reports, and his Web site shows endorsement letters from the N.C. Right to Life PAC and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, perhaps the most powerful evangelical Christian group in the country.

    Duke has spent the bulk of his campaign contributions on mass mailings, with a considerable portion of the pot going to consultants. Parker's campaign finance reports show that she spent next to nothing through the end of the second quarter, which ended on the last day of June. She declined to reveal her campaign expenditures since then. Third quarter campaign finance reports are due Oct. 30.

    Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy N.C., admits the race for chief justice does show some of the weaknesses of public financing. Hall says that many groups like NCATL PAC mobilized their bases to give to certain candidates. And he calls Duke "the kind of candidate that people say is buying the office." But Hall insists that the judicial public financing program--one of the first in the nation--has brought positive change.

    "We're finding that overall, the proportion of money from attorneys is smaller," he says. "Even if they're getting $50,000 from attorneys, they're getting $300,000 from the rest of us, the public at large."

    According to a June report from Democracy N.C., donations from attorneys from dropped from 55 percent in 2002, the last election before public financing, to 14 percent in 2004.

    This election year, eight of the 12 candidates for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals qualified for public financing. One other candidate, Kris Bailey, tried but did not raise enough qualifying contributions. Supreme Court Judge Mark Martin was the only other candidate whose contributions rivaled Duke's: Martin has raised a little over $325,000 with strong support from attorneys.

    Back in Rocky Mount, most agreed that judges and citizens would have to work together for public financing to succeed.

    "We have to have a reduction from wealthy interests and a simultaneous buy-in from voters," Democracy N.C. staffer Molly Beacham said.

    More by Mosi Secret

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