Do campaign contributions from special interest groups influence judicial candidates when they reach the bench?

If you ask North Carolina progressives, the answer will be: it depends.

Their answer will depend on whichever answer helps advance their cause at the moment.

This has become clear in the recent debate over whether state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls should recuse herself from a case bankrolled by one of her major donors.

Take this Jan. 30 editorial by the Raleigh News & Observer. The article mocked the notion that Earls could be swayed by sizeable campaign contributions made by a special interest group that is largely financing the plaintiffs in a major redistricting lawsuit Earls will hear. (Note: my colleague Andy Jackson has argued that Earls should not recuse herself from this case, and I agree. This article strictly focuses on the left’s hypocrisy on this issue.)

So appalled by the thought, the N&O derided such a notion as “attacking something fundamental to democracy – the public’s faith in the legitimacy of the judiciary.” And in responding to Republicans supporting Earls’ recusal asking “Eric Holder paid six figures to get Justice Earls elected so she could hear his lawsuit. Is this really the future liberals want?,” the N&O bluntly replied “Well, yes.” Not a whiff of concern about conflict of interest with a major donor.

Similarly, the far-left NC Policy Watch clutched their pearls at the idea Earls recuse herself because she was supported in her campaign for office by the same group behind a case she is hearing, crying “where does this end?”

Of course, for those who have been paying any attention, these most recent comments mark yet another case of progressive hypocrisy.

For decades, the left in North Carolina have insisted that judicial campaign races be funded by taxpayers, in order to avoid conflicts of interest that may arise when campaign donors appear in court before the judge they supported.

Indeed, in 2007 North Carolina began a program progressives called “voter owned elections” that featured taxpayer funding of political campaigns for Council of State and appellate court races. The program was ended in 2013, much to the chagrin of North Carolina progressives.

In 2014, longtime N&O editor Steve Ford lamented the ending of the program, insisting that campaign contributions for judicial candidates come from people or groups “who then may think the recipient owes them something,” and that donors will “be holding what amount to IOUs from a sitting judge.”

“Specifically with respect to the election of judges,” Ford continued, “public trust in the courts is essential, as is judges’ unwavering commitment to follow the law, not the wishes of campaign contributors and supporters.”

Taxpayer funding for judicial candidates is essential, Ford noted, quoting from the legislation that created the program, “to protect the constitutional rights of voters and candidates from the detrimental effects of increasingly large amounts of money being raised and spent to influence the outcome of elections, those effects being especially problematic in elections of the judiciary, since impartiality is uniquely important to the integrity and credibility of the courts.”

At the same time, NC Policy Watch similarly grieved the ending of the program, insisting the program is needed to reduce “the influence of fats cats and other big money special interests” that make elected judges “beholden” to them.

Other opinions appearing in the N&O in 2014 claimed it is harder for judges to be impartial “when they have to raise a lot of money from people who are likely to appear before them in court,” and even that “46 percent of judges believe that campaign spending has some influence over their decision-making process.”

And these sentiments still remain strong today. For instance, the leftist Democracy NC still advocates on their website to bring back taxpayer funding for judicial campaigns, in the hopes doing so will ensure “judges who had not been influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by big campaign donors who may appear before them.”

Perhaps most interestingly, a 2021 document published by the Institute for Southern Studies and NC Voters for Clean Elections titled “Blueprint for a Stronger Democracy” includes a recommendation to bring back the taxpayer financing of judicial elections. Reasoning includes the argument that private donations “create(s) conflicts of interest when elected officials accept money from special interests whose issues they will be making decisions about in the executive, legislative, or judicial branches.” (emphasis added)

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the organization Earls founded and headed for a decade, is a contributing organization to the document.

Clearly, the left in North Carolina, including Earls’ own organization, has for decades warned against what they claim is the corrupting influence of special interest contributions on elected judges’ courtroom decisions.

But now they scoff at any such suggestion when it comes to requests for Earls to recuse herself from a case involving her major donor.

The hypocrisy is overwhelming.