On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11, as the North Carolina House jousted over details of the state budget, Rep. Jonathan Jordan, a Republican attorney from the state’s mountain region, decided to help the legislature reach a compromise on a thorny problem. At issue was the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, a popular program launched in 2003 to help free judges from relying on deep-pocketed — and potentially compromising — special interest donors to get elected. Eighty percent of eligible judges — conservatives and liberals — used the voluntery program, which awarded candidates a grant to help run their campaign if they raised at least 350 small donations and agreed to strict spending limits. Ideologues hated the public financing option, but judges and even many conservatives thought it boosted public confidence in the courts. In May, members of the state’s Court of Appeals took the unusual step of publicly calling on legislative leaders to keep the program. A dozen newspapers praised its success, and two Republican officials from West Virginia came to explain why their state had just adopted the North Carolina model.
Despite this support, the Republican House budget, like those of the Senate and governor, called for raiding the fund and killing its two sources of money, a $3 check-off on the state tax form and a $50 fee paid by attorneys. But Rep. Jordan had a middle-ground amendment: End the tax check-off and siphon $3.5 million from the fund, but keep the lawyers fees to more slowly replenish the fund at no cost to taxpayers. With other Republicans pledging support, it looked like Jordan’s compromise would pass with ease.
Then Art Pope showed up.
Soon after Jordan’s amendment was filed the next day, the multimillionaire GOP donor and budget director for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory made a rare visit to the General Assembly and took Jordan aside. When the impromptu meeting with Pope ended, Jordan made an abrupt U-turn and dropped the amendment.
The amendment died — and with it chances of saving North Carolina’s pioneering judicial program.