Supreme Court Upholds Limit on Judicial Fund-Raising

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rulled that states may prohibit judicial candidates from personally asking their supporters for campaign contributions. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four-member liberal wing to form a majority.

“A state’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the decision was a disguised attack on judicial elections that “flattens one settled First Amendment principle after another.”

The decision effectively upheld measures in 30 states that forbid judicial candidates to make personal appeals for money. Such solicitations, the states say, threaten the integrity of the judiciary and public confidence in the judicial system.

Supreme Court justices, like other federal judges, are appointed for life and are meant to be insulated from politics. But judges in 39 states face elections that are often awash in money, creating a tension between accountability and independence. Their contributors often appear before them, and some studies have found that elected state Supreme Court judges tend to vote in favor of their contributors.

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Lanell Williams-Yulee was reprimanded after signing a fund-raising letter when she ran for a Florida county court. Credit Tampa Tribune, via Associated Press

The Supreme Court has struggled with how much leeway to grant states in regulating judicial elections. In a 2002 decision, it allowed judges running for office to take stands on political and legal issues. But in 2009, it required the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to recuse himself from a case over $3 million of campaign spending on his behalf by an interested party.

Wednesday’s decision stressed that judicial elections are different. “Judges are not politicians,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot.”

The case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, No. 13-1499, concerned Lanell Williams-Yulee, who lost a race for a seat on the county court in Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa. She was reprimanded and made to pay $1,860 in court costs for signing a fund-raising letter.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld the penalties and the state’s solicitation ban, saying it helped “ensure that judges engaged in campaign activities are able to maintain their status as fair and impartial arbiters of the law.”

Wednesday’s ruling affirmed that decision even as it acknowledged that important First Amendment interests were at stake. “Speech about public issues and the qualifications of candidates for elected office commands the highest level of First Amendment protection,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

Even so, he said, this was “one of the rare cases in which a speech restriction withstands strict scrutiny.”

The states’ interests in protecting judicial integrity and public confidence were compelling ones, he wrote. “Judges, charged with exercising strict neutrality and independence,” he said, “cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity.

Chief Justice Roberts dismissed concerns about the porousness of the Florida ban. It allows judicial candidates to make campaign appearances where others ask for money, to know who has contributed and to express gratitude. Under Wednesday’s ruling, then, judicial candidates can say thank you, but they may not say please.

“Solicitation by the candidate personally creates a categorically different and more severe risk,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

“In any event,” he added, “Florida can ban personal solicitation of campaign funds by judicial candidates without making them obey a comprehensive code to leading an ethical life.”

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined all of the chief justice’s opinion, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg most of it.