Groups’ Supreme Court Brief Supports Florida Law Barring Campaign Solicitations by Judges

CLC Staff
Dec 24, 2014
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Yesterday in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, groups concerned about impartial justice filed an amici brief in the United States Supreme Court in support of a Florida law barring the personal solicitation of contributions by judicial candidates.  The brief argues that personal solicitations by candidates undermine public faith in the judicial process and that the state has a duty to safeguard judicial integrity through a reasonable and targeted response like the ban on those solicitations.

“Allowing judicial candidates to personally solicit campaign contributions undermines public confidence in the judicial process, and makes litigants question whether judges can remain impartial before those they have asked for money in order to gain office,” said Megan P. McAllen, Campaign Legal Center Associate Counsel.  “States have a duty to protect judicial integrity and the public’s faith in fair courts, and the state of Florida’s solicitation ban is a reasonable and targeted bulwark to safeguard the public trust.”

Currently, Florida judicial candidates must create a committee to solicit contributions on their behalf.  The brief argues that personal solicitations by judicial candidates create the perception that judges may favor their contributors in court.  

The brief also emphasizes that under Florida’s rule, judicial candidates are in no way inhibited from communicating about their fitness for office or speaking on issues of public concern. The rule thus protects a vital interest in judicial impartiality but imposes only a minor restriction on the conduct of judicial candidates. 

The groups joining in the brief in support of the solicitation ban include the Campaign Legal Center, Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, the Center for Media and Democracy, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Demos.  The Campaign Legal Center gratefully acknowledges the work of the attorneys of Kaye Scholer LLP.

To read the brief, click here.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in this case on January 20, 2015. 

BACKGROUND:

Thirty-nine states use elections to select judges. In order to protect the impartiality of the courts, the state of Florida, like 29 other states, prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Instead, a special campaign committee solicits and collects contributions. This case involves a challenge by Lanell Williams-Yulee, who was disciplined by the Florida Bar and charged a fine for professional misconduct after sending a mass-mail fundraising letter in 2009 to launch her county court judge campaign. Williams-Yulee challenged Florida’s canon as an infringement of her right to free speech. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that challenge, reasoning that prohibiting personal solicitation by judicial candidates serves to preserve the existence and appearance of a fair and impartial judiciary. In October 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams-Yulee’s First Amendment challenge to Florida’s canon.

In the last 12 years, the Supreme Court has twice considered cases about judicial campaign activity. In 2002, the Court decided, 5-4, in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, to strike down Minnesota’s “announce clause,” a canon of judicial conduct prohibiting judicial candidates from discussing disputed and controversial legal and political issues. In another significant case, Caperton v. Massey, the Supreme Court recognized that spending in judicial campaigns could create an appearance of bias, requiring a judge to recuse himself.

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