Judicial campaign solicitation ban upheld by SCOTUS

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A divided Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states can bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions, leaving intact bans in 30 states.

The 5-4 decision is a break from a line of Supreme Court rulings that have broadened candidate speech rights and narrowed campaign-finance rules in other contexts. Chief Justice John Roberts split from his conservative colleagues, joining the court’s four Democratic appointees to say that judicial elections are different from other campaigns.

“A state may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor – and without having personally asked anyone for money,” Roberts wrote.

Spending on state judicial elections has soared in recent years, topping $56 million in the 2011-12 election cycle, according to a study by three groups, including Justice at Stake, a Washington organization that works to protect the courts from political pressure.

Florida is one of the 30 states that bar judicial candidates from making personal solicitations. Thirty-nine states have judicial elections in some form. Lower courts had been divided on the constitutionality of solicitation bans.

The ruling is a defeat for Lanell Williams-Yulee, a former Florida state judicial candidate who was publicly reprimanded by the state bar association after signing a mass-mail fundraising letter. The bar association said she violated its code of judicial conduct.

Judicial Integrity

Williams-Yulee contended that the law, which bars candidates from asking for money in speeches and mass mailings, does little if anything to promote judicial integrity. She argued that personal solicitations don’t pose any greater risk than the thank-you notes candidates are permitted to write under Florida law.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said Florida had to choose between appointing its judges and letting them run for office with the full protections of the First Amendment.

“One cannot have judicial elections without judicial campaigns, and judicial campaigns without funds for campaigning, and funds for campaigning without asking for them,” Scalia wrote. He called the Florida rule a “wildly disproportionate restriction upon speech.”

Another dissenter, Anthony Kennedy, said the court “locks the First Amendment out” and was endorsing “state censorship.”

‘Narrow slice’

Roberts called those characterizations overblown, saying Florida’s rule “restricts a narrow slice of speech.” He said candidates were free to discuss issues, run advertisements and have their campaign committees solicit funds.

“A reader of Justice Kennedy’s dissent could be forgiven for concluding that the court has just upheld a latter-day version of the Alien and Sedition Acts,” said Roberts, referring to the 18th century laws long criticized as efforts to stifle political dissent.

The decision marked a rare Supreme Court victory for groups that try to limit the role of money in elections. The ruling comes five years after Roberts and the other four Republican appointees gave corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited sums on elections.

“The Supreme Court recognized the paramount importance of protecting the integrity of our courts,” said Matthew Menendez, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

The Supreme Court hadn’t ruled on the speech rights of judicial candidates since 2002, when the court said states must let would-be judges express their views on legal and political issues.

The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 13-1499.

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