Public funding for judicial races works

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One of the blessings of listening to retired statesmen is they often leave behind partisan expectations and look toward a common good.

Two former governors – Republican Jim Holshouser and Democrat Jim Hunt – co-wrote letters to newspapers all over North Carolina last week to speak up for the continuation of public funding of judicial elections.

Judicial races rarely generate the kind of political sizzle that makes for nasty campaign ads. We can all be thankful for that.

A judge plays a very different role from that of a county commissioner or legislator. He or she can hardly go about making promises to rule a certain way on cases that haven’t even been heard. That’s why national and state bar associations have guidelines on what judicial candidates can say.

But candidates for the bench still face off on ballots. And that means they have to solicit campaign donations and face questions from their donors, who might be the same lawyers who later will argue cases before the elected judge.

In 2004, North Carolina adopted a voluntary program in which candidates for the N.C. Court of Appeals and N.C. Supreme Court could accept money from a specially created public campaign fund, so long as the candidates forego private contributions. The system has become a national model, and the North Carolina justice system is better for it.

Judicial candidates are less likely to take positions on legal issues to appease campaign donors. Nor do they have to knock on the doors of special interest groups to raise money.

Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly seek to do away with the voluntary system. The GOP believes it can wield more power by making judicial races partisan.

Holshouser and Hunt disagree. That’s why they’re campaigning to keep the public funding option intact.

Here’s hoping the General Assembly will listen to bipartisan reason from two of North Carolina’s more visionary leaders.