"(Public Financing) makes all the difference. I've run in two elections, one with campaign finance reform and one without. I'll take 'with' any time, any day, any where."
—Judge Wanda Bryant, N.C. Court of Appeals
Elected judges must "dial for dollars," from parties who appear before them in court. Public financing reduces that pressure, and thus boosts public confidence in elected judges.
Eligible candidates receive a pool of public money to conduct their campaigns. To qualify, candidates must obtain smaller contributions from a specified number of supporters, and abide by strict fundraising and spending limits.
North Carolina became the first state, in 2002, to provide full public financing for judicial campaigns. An in-depth study concluded in 2009 that North Carolina's plan "has reduced the influence of private contributors and helps insulate judges from politics.” New Mexico adopted a public funding plan for judicial elections in 2007, and in 2009, Wisconsin became the third state to adopt public financing for appellate court elections. In 2010, West Virginia's legislature approved a trial test of public financing for the 2012 state Supreme Court elections.
But now, public financing is under attack. In two of the four states that adopted public financing for judicial elections over the last decade, legislators acted in 2011 to gut funding or provide inadequate funds. In a third state, legislators tried unsuccessfully to repeal the program altogether.
These attacks have been led by Republican opponents of public financing, although polls, including a 2011 Justice at Stake survey, show broad bipartisan support for public financing of judicial elections.
Public financing of elections also was dealt a blow by a June 27, 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (formerly known as McComish). Plaintiffs in the case prevailed in seeking to throw out a rule that protected participating candidates from costly special-interest attacks.
In an amicus brief, Justice at Stake called public financing "one of the most powerful reforms in shielding courts from special-interest influence." When the Court issued its decision, JAS called the ruling "disappointing, but not fatal for America's courts."