For immediate release
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.
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.
Justice at Stake is a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan campaign with more than 50 national partners, working to keep state and federal courts fair and impartial.
The N.C. Center for Voter Education is a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, dedicated to helping citizens fully participate in democracy.
Below are a sample of questions used in the poll. To view the rest of the poll, click here.
Q. Think for a minute about election campaigns for judges. During a campaign, candidates running for judge often fund their campaigns in part by taking contributions from individuals, special interests, corporations and unions that may later have a court case in front of an elected judge. Do you think campaign contributions later influence the rulings that a judge makes, or not, and to what degree – greatly, somewhat, only a little or not at all?
Greatly: 43 percent
Somewhat likely: 40 percent
Only a small amount: 11 percent
Not at all: 2 percent
Not sure: 5 percent
Q. And what about when a judicial candidate receives a contribution from an individual, business or interest group that has a pending case that the elected judge might have to rule on. Do you think that is a very serious problem, not that serious, or no problem at all?
Very serious: 79 percent
Not that serious: 14 percent
No problem at all: 2 percent
Not sure: 5 percent
Q. And one last time, thinking about judges. Oftentimes organizations, businesses, or individuals that contribute large amounts of money in support or opposition of a judge later have a court case that is scheduled before the same judge. In situations such as this, do you think a judge should always disqualify himself from hearing the case even if he believes he can be impartial, or should judges not have to disqualify themselves from these types of cases?
Always disqualify: 85 percent
Not have to disqualify: 8 percent
Not sure: 8 percent
Q. Some people have proposed getting rid of North Carolina's public financing system for judicial elections and returning to a system where judicial candidates raise all of their money privately from individuals, corporations and interest groups. Imagine that your local representative or senator in the legislature voted to eliminate the public financing system for judicial candidates, would that make you more or less likely to support your representative or senator in the future?
More likely: 20 percent
Less likely: 49 percent
No difference: 17 percent
Not sure: 13 percent
Q. And supporters of public financing for judicial elections have argued that it reduces corruption. Based on what you know about how public financing for judicial elections works, do you agree that it reduces corruption or not?
Reduces corruption: 48 percent
No effect or doesn’t reduce: 25 percent
Not sure: 27 percent
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