Supreme Court bans direct judicial fundraising

Supreme Court bans direct judicial fundraising
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a Florida ban on state judicial candidates personally soliciting campaign donations, placing a limit on campaign finance despite recent decisions that have treated campaign donations as free speech.

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Justice John Roberts joined with the four more liberal justices in the 5 to 4 opinion. Roberts wrote that Florida and other states should have the right to institute the limited bans because states have a compelling interest in “preserving the public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary.”

“Simply put, the public may lack confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice without fear or favor if he comes to office by asking for favors,” he wrote.

The case, Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, stems from a failed Florida judicial candidate who appealed a fine for sending out personal requests for campaign donations. She contended that the ban was a violation of her First Amendment rights to free speech, but that argument didn’t pass muster with the court.

Roberts wrote that the ban “restricts a narrow slice of speech” and gives judicial candidates a slew of ways to lobby for support, including asking their campaign committees to do so.

Florida is one of the 39 states that hold judicial elections, and a majority of those states have similar bans on judicial candidates directly lobbying for donations. The decision only applies to Florida, but it sets precedent that other states would be allowed to enforce similar laws.

Advocates for campaign finance reform applauded the decision, but questioned why the court has ruled over the past few years in favor of fewer campaign finance restrictions, allowing outside groups to accept unlimited amounts of money.

“This is a momentous victory for public faith in the integrity of our judicial system,” Megan P. McAllen, an associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.

“At the same time, it is disappointing that what the Court rightly finds untenable in the judicial context — responsiveness to campaign donors — it would tolerate for legislative and executive candidates. Public faith that the judiciary will provide equal justice under the law is vital, but so too is the public’s faith that lawmakers are serving the public interest rather than those of their most generous donors.”

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito all filed dissenting opinions to the decision.

“Although States have a compelling interest in seeking to ensure the appearance and the reality of an impartial judiciary, it does not follow that the State may alter basic First Amendment principles in pursuing that goal,” Kennedy wrote.