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N.C. Voters: Campaign Contributions Influence Court Rulings

RALEIGH – An overwhelming majority of North Carolina voters say campaign contributions to judicial candidates can influence the outcome of court cases, according to a new poll commissioned by the Justice at Stake Campaign and the N.C. Center for Voter Education and co-funded by CED.

The poll finds that 94 percent of North Carolina voters believe campaign contributions have some sway on a judge’s decision, including 43 percent who say campaign donations can greatly affect a ruling.

Among voters surveyed, 79 percent believe it is a very serious problem when judges receive campaign contributions from a party with a case pending before the court. Eighty-five percent of voters say judges should disqualify themselves from hearing cases that involve their major campaign contributors.

When it comes to North Carolina’s first-in-the-nation system of public financing for judicial elections, 49 percent of voters say they would be less likely to support a legislative candidate who wants to eliminate the program. Only 20 percent of voters say they would be more likely to favor a candidate who sought to end the program. 

That trend holds across party lines, with 45 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents saying they would be less likely to cast a ballot for legislative candidates who wish to eliminate the judicial public financing program.

According to the poll, 48 percent of voters say that public campaign financing reduces the potential for corruption in the courts. Just 25 percent said it made no difference and 27 percent were unsure.

“This poll shows that North Carolina voters are concerned about the role of money in judicial elections,” said Damon Circosta, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. “Voters believe that giving judicial candidates an alternative to special-interest money to fund their campaigns is key to protecting the integrity of our courts.”

“Trust in the courts is eroded when judges have to dial for dollars from parties who appear before them,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. “North Carolina’s public financing is a national model, and this poll confirms that voters want to preserve a program that keeps campaign cash out of the courtroom.”  

First used in 2004, North Carolina’s judicial public financing program allows candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals to receive public campaign funds. Participating candidates must first raise a certain number of small qualifying contributions from registered North Carolina voters and agree to strict fundraising and spending limits.

Funding for the program comes primarily through a voluntary $3 check off on the state income tax form and a $50 surcharge on dues paid by attorneys to the State Bar. In addition to providing public financing to judicial candidates, the program pays for a voter guide mailed to homes across the state in the weeks before Election Day.

Conducted Feb. 8-10 by 20/20 Insight Polling, the statewide poll of 600 registered North Carolina voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.