When he was about to retire from the bench in December 1998, Judge Julius A. Rousseau Jr. of Wilkesboro said in a newspaper interview that all he wanted professionally was to be remembered as fair.
Rousseau said that as senior resident Superior Court judge, he had tried to do what he thought was right regardless of the situation and who it involved. He said he knew this sometimes made people mad, but it left him with a clear conscience and able to sleep at night.
Rousseau died Thursday and is remembered by attorneys and judges across the state for endeavoring to do the right thing based on his understanding of the law. He influenced others in his profession to aspire to similar high ideals.
It didn’t matter that Rousseau was a leader in the Democratic Party in Wilkes before he became a judge. Fellow judges and his other associates in the legal profession, both Democrats and Republicans, say he strongly believed that political influence and partisanship have no place in court decisions and he demonstrated this belief by his actions.
Rousseau was a tough but impartial judge and it would be impossible to categorize him politically based on his rulings and sentences.
One of the reasons he didn’t seek re-election in 1998 was that he abhorred the idea of raising money for a campaign and receiving donations because it could at least raise questions of judicial impartiality. Judicial races were conducted in individual judicial districts rather than statewide starting in 1998, so Rousseau faced the likelihood of having to seek and receive political contributions.
Fortunately, North Carolina became the first state to enact public campaign financing for judicial elections in 2002. Unfortunately, the legislature repealed this highly successfull program in 2013 – against the will of many North Carolina citizens and the judicial community.
The public campaign financing program was voluntary, so judicial candidates could choose to forgo most private donations in exchange for public support. It was funded with a $50 assessment on all attorneys and a voluntary $3 check-off on state income tax forms.
Between 2004 and 2010, 77% of candidates facing contested elections in either the N.C. Supreme Court or N.C. Court of Appeals chose the public funding option. Both Republican and Democratic candidates used the program.
The public campaign financing program reduced special-interest spending on North Carolina court elections and allowed judicial candidates to spend more time communicating with voters.
When the N.C. legislature ended the program in 2013, it also raised the amount an individual can donate to judicial campaigns from $1,000 to $5,000.
This allowed far more special-interest money to flow into state Supreme Court campaigns, whose main source of funding even while the public campaign fund was in effect was lobbyists and lawyers.
The problem is that many people with the most at stake in the outcomes of judicial elections are the same ones able and willing to spend the most to assert influence. These include many of the lawyers who find themselves most often in front of the judges and people representing special interests.
As spending on judicial elections has increased nationwide in recent years, so have concerns about judicial decisions possibly being affected by donations to judges’ election campaigns. Analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, the American Constitution Society and others have found a correlation between special interest group donations to the campaigns of judicial candidates and judicial decisions.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote several years ago, “This crisis of confidence in the judiciary is real and growing. Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold.”