A Wake County Superior Court judge Monday upheld a $50 annual fee charged to attorneys to help pay for a public campaign financing fund, but he also gave them a bit more discretion in how the money can be spent.
Two attorneys, Catherine M. El-Khouri and W. Anthony Purcell, had sued the state over the fees, which are assessed through the North Carolina State Bar, Dan Kane reports.
The campaign fund pays for publicly-financed campaigns for state appellate judicial races and for a voter education guide. The attorneys had contended the fee represented a violation of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and was an impermissible tax. They sued in October 2007.
Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. found that the fee is legal, but he also granted attorneys the option of designating their $50 fee to the voter guide. That way, he said, they would not be paying into the campaigns of candidates that they don't like.
"Overall, it's a positive decision for continued funding of a program that Judge Manning says serves a compelling state interest," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonprofit that supports public campaign financing.
He said the attorney fee generates $1.1 million annually, about half of the total funds for the judicial public financing program. The rest comes from a voluntary $3 check-off on the state income tax form.
Update: Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court judge who heads the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, also found plenty to like in Manning's decision. The institute had supported the lawyers' suit.
"From our perspective, the constitutional claim the suit was based on was upheld by the court," Orr said. "The remedy may be broader than we advocated for, but the underlying claim was upheld as unconstitutional. The $50 fee cannot go to candidates by fiat of the General Assembly."