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High court won't hear challenge to funding of N.C. judicial races

By The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's system of publicly financed judicial campaigns remained intact yesterday after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge over a provision for additional funds in expensive races.

The justices declined, without comment, to consider the constitutionality of a voluntary program passed by the Legislature and that took effect in 2004.

The program provides campaign money for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates if they agree to fundraising restrictions leading up to the general election. The decision came on the eve of today’s election in which all but two of the 13 candidates for those seats participated in the program.

The decision leaves intact a federal appeals court ruling upholding the law, which has been a model for other states, including New Mexico.

"This gives supporters of judicial public financing and public financing in general confidence and assurance that the long line of decisions (supporting) public financing ... are still the law of the land," said Paul Ryan, an attorney with the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, whose group earlier filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the law.

Former Supreme Court candidate Rusty Duke and the North Carolina Right to Life Committee sued over the law in 2005, arguing it restricted free-speech rights in cases where outside groups or nonparticipating candidates exceeded spending thresholds.

The qualifying candidates receive matching "rescue funds" to counter such injections of money.

The state's requirements that privately funded candidates and independent expenditure groups must file additional paperwork when they spend money to determine if rescue funds are triggered also "impose a substantial unconstitutional burden on the political speech" of these entities, according to the plaintiff's petition.

The Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state in May.

Attorneys for Duke and the group asked the high court unsuccessfully to consider the case in part because interest in public financing has expanded nationwide.

James Bopp, the attorney for Duke and N.C. Right to Life, wrote in his request that the Supreme Court should consider the challenge after striking down the so-called "millionaire's amendment." That ruling came in a separate case about federal campaign-finance law that allowed candidates to accept larger individual contributions when their opponents spend large sums of personal money in a race.

Bopp didn't return a phone call seeking comment in time for this story.

Duke is a Superior Court judge in Pitt County.

Under the North Carolina program, qualifying candidates for Supreme Court received $223,625 and candidates for the Court of Appeals received $160,000 this year. The program is funded largely by a $50 annual fee that all North Carolina lawyers must pay and a voluntary checkoff on state income tax returns.

Supporters argue the program reduces the appearance that judicial candidates could treat lawyers or their clients who gave to their campaigns differently when cases come to the courtroom. New Mexico has approved a similar program and legislators in other states are considering it, said Damon Circosta, policy director for the North Carolina Center for Voter Education.

"Public financing provides for our nonpartisan judges to run in a way that doesn't leave them beholden to special interest money," Circosta said.

The state expanded public financing this year to include races for state auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction.

The case is North Carolina Right to Life Committee v. Leake, 08-120.

4th Circuit rules on N.C. campaign-finance laws
One three-judge panel strikes down rules on issue-oriented PACs and campaign contributions; another upholds state's public-financing system for appellate judges' elections. 05.02.08


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