The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday March 25th

Private campaign donations prompt partiality in judges

As election season approaches, there are some forgotten candidates on the ballots — judges. Some of whom solicit campaign donations, prompting concerns about judicial partiality.

Such concerns were the impetus behind a recent study published by Morgan Hazelton, Jacob Montgomery and Brendan Nyhan, professors at Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis and Dartmouth College, respectively.

The study, called "Does Public Financing Affect Judicial Behavior? Evidence From the North Carolina Supreme Court," found evidence that justices who opted into North Carolina's public financing program were relatively less favorable to attorney donors and more moderate in their voting patterns.

"We were frustrated that this question had only been studied using correlations between contributions and votes, which we didn't find to be persuasive evidence," Nyhan said. "We thought judicial contribution was an important issue of fairness and trust in the legal system, and it seemed that attorneys played a disproportionate role in judicial campaigns — because very few people know or care about the judges running for office — and then (attorneys) argue in front of them immediately after."

The analysis focuses on the effects of a North Carolina policy instituted in 2002.

North Carolina's policy experiment sought to protect judicial integrity by launching a voluntary public funding program — judges that opted-in could forgo the fundraising process and instead, their campaigns would be subsidized by that state up to a certain point.

In 2013, North Carolina abandoned the project.

"More states don't have public funding programs because number one, the legislatures don't have the money to allocate, and number two, legislatures may have no interest in finding different ways to get that money," said Michael Gerhardt, professor in the UNC School of Law. 

"In North Carolina, for example, the legislature doesn't want to raise taxes for different reasons, but that means there's less money for public schools and public education — within that context it's hard to allocate money for judges to have their campaigns funded when that may be a priority many legislatures don't have," he said.

But some scholars aren't convinced the public funding programs are needed. Chris Bonneau, political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said it's likely the relationship between judicial voting patterns and donor contributions is misleading, because people give to judges they align with ideologically. 

"Is it the government's role to act as an arbiter in these kinds of elections? Is it an appropriate use of government funds, of government time to fund candidates?" he said.

"Do we really think judges are going to vote one way, but change their mind because they got some money — or is what's really happening that donors give money to like-minded candidates? All the evidence suggests that it's that."

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