Washington, D.C. — A new report released today by the Center for American Progress finds a troubling correlation between North Carolina judicial campaign contributions and the success rates of law firms that donate money.
The report follows this year’s North Carolina high court election, which saw an unprecedented $4 million in campaign contributions—dramatically more than any election in the past decade. The report also highlights the influence of lawyers and corporate polluters, who also spent big in the 2014 North Carolina Supreme Court race, and underscores the need for state legislators to restore a public financing system to keep corporations and attorneys from trying to curry favor through judicial campaign cash.
“We saw North Carolina Supreme Court candidates raise large amount of campaign cash—donations from attorneys and corporations that might appear before them,” said Billy Corriher, Director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. “The influx of judicial campaign cash raises serious questions about the integrity of the state’s judiciary. Are judges responsive to the voters or the attorneys and corporations funding their campaigns?”
The report examines the success rates of law firms that appeared before the North Carolina Supreme from 1998 to 2006 and also made contributions to the justices’ campaigns. CAP’s analysis shows that repeat-player attorneys who donated to judges also had more favorable rulings. These correlations—whether they reflect causation or not—raise doubts about the impartiality of judges.
The study shows very high success rates for attorney donors with more than five cases before the bench who gave at least $1,000, but these rates dropped from 75 percent in 1998 to 62 percent in 2004, the first year that public financing system was offered. In 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory (R), a former executive at Duke Energy, signed a bill that eliminated public financing.
The report also raises concerns about corporate influence in more recent judicial races, including that of Duke Energy, the country’s largest power company. Since 2012, the company has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups such as the Republican State Leadership Committee—by far the biggest spender in the two most recent elections for the North Carolina Supreme Court—which ran ads to elect conservative justices to the bench.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy has billions of dollars at stake in North Carolina courts, with lawsuits over its responsibility to keep toxic coal ash out of the state’s drinking water. Over the weekend, Gov. McCrory filed a lawsuit in North Carolina state court against the legislature alleging that the commission overseeing the coal ash river cleanup is unconstitutional. Gov. McCrory claims it violates his constitutional authority to appoint executive branch officials, since the legislature appoints six of the commission’s nine positions.
The new CAP report calls on North Carolina legislators to restore reforms that keep corporations from flooding the state supreme court with dirty money.
The public financing system—which was popular among voters and used by the vast majority of candidates—muted the influence of deep-pocketed campaign donors for more than a decade. A new small-donor matching system could help keep the bench diverse and mitigate the appearance of judicial bias.
Read the report: Dirty Money, Dirty Water: Keeping Polluters and Other Campaign Donors from Influencing North Carolina Judicial Elections by Billy Corriher and Sean Wright
Related resource: Keeping Campaign Cash Out of North Carolina Courts by Billy Corriher and Sean Wright
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