Dirty Money, Dirty Water: The repeal of public financing for judicial candidates will allow corporate polluters more influence over North Carolina courts

Dirty Money, Dirty Water: The repeal of public financing for judicial candidates will allow corporate polluters more influence over North Carolina courts

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Editor’s note: On Tuesday, NC Policy Watch will host a Crucial Conversation luncheon on the demise of public financing for judicial campaigns in North Carolina at which Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress will provide a preview of a new, soon-to-be-released report on the subject he has co-authored entitled “Dirty Money, Dirty Water.” The following provides a sneak preview of the report and tomorrow’s talk. Click here to learn more about tomorrow’s event.

On August 12, 2013, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a bill that created a voter ID requirement, cut early voting, eliminated the state’s innovative and popular public financing program for judicial candidates, and raised the judicial campaign contribution limit. The public financing program was popular with voters, and the vast majority of candidates participated.

As a result, this year was the first time in a decade that North Carolina Supreme Court candidates were able to raise campaign cash—much of it from attorneys and corporations with a financial interest in the court’s rulings. The May 5 primary election saw an unprecedented $1.3 million in spending for the only contested seat.

Nearly half of this money came from the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, a group in Washington, D.C., that helps elect Republican legislators across the United States. One of the biggest donors to the RSLC in North Carolina is Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric utility. Duke Energy’s power plants produced $24 billion in revenue in 2013.

The company wields enormous influence in North Carolina. The links between Duke Energy and Gov. McCrory’s administration have been scrutinized since February 2014, when a ruptured pipe at one of Duke Energy’s power plants released 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash slurry into the Dan River, which provides drinking water to 42,000 people.

Testing has revealed toxins in reservoirs around North Carolina. The Catawba Riverkeepers Foundation found toxins in Mountain Island Lake, a source of drinking water for 800,000 people around Charlotte, NC, and in groundwater near all 14 of Duke Energy’s coal-fired plants in North Carolina. One young resident near Mountain Island Lake, 11-year-old Anna Behnke, reportedly told Duke Energy’s former CEO, “I go to bed every night scared that I could get cancer from that [power] plant.”

The state legislature recently passed a bill to more stringently regulate coal ash ponds, but the Southern Environmental Law Center said the bill does not go far enough. The bill creates a commission to determine how Duke Energy must clean up the coal ash ponds, but Gov. McCrory has said he will challenge this provision in court.

Some North Carolinians have already taken Duke to court, asking judges to order the company to mitigate the risks to their drinking water. At the same time, Duke Energy is spending big to keep a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court. Aided by the repeal of North Carolina’s public financing law, campaign contributors such as Duke Energy now will have more opportunities to try to buy influence in the state courts.

An upcoming report from the Center for American Progress examines the success rates of law firms that appeared before the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1998 to 2006 and also had made contributions to the justices’ campaigns.  Our study shows very high success rates for attorney donors with more than five cases before the bench giving at least $1,000, but these rates dropped from 71 percent in 1998 to 62 percent in 2004, the first year that the public financing law was in place.

Success Rate
Source: Center for American Progress

Citizens must demand that legislators create another public financing system to keep corporations and attorneys from trying to curry favor through judicial campaign cash. Chief Justice Sarah Parker recently warned, “If people perceive that our courts are for sale, they will lose confidence in the ability of courts to be fair and impartial … We must have judges committed to the rule of law … without regard to politics, special interests or personal agenda.”

Legislators must restore reforms that ensure judicial legitimacy. Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s approach to campaign finance cases, North Carolina legislators will have to craft a system that is constitutional and effective in this era of unlimited independent spending. A small-donor matching system could revolutionize judicial elections and provide the necessary protection from corruption in the courts.

Billy Corriher and Sean Wright work the Legal Progress project at the Center for American progress in Washington, DC.