Judicial Campaign Solicitations Get Supreme Court Review

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether candidates for judgeships have a constitutional right to solicit campaign contributions, agreeing to hear a case that tests the balance between free speech and judicial integrity.

The justices today said they will hear an appeal from Lanell Williams-Yulee, a former Florida state judicial candidate who was disciplined after signing a mass-mail fundraising letter.

The case will have ramifications across the country. At least 38 states have judicial elections in some form, and 30 of those states ban candidates from making personal solicitations.

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.

Lower courts are divided on the constitutionality of solicitation bans. The Florida Supreme Court upheld that state’s prohibition, saying it “promotes the state’s compelling interests in preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary.”

The Florida court said the law places only a limited burden on the speech rights of candidates because the measure lets them raise funds through a separate committee.

Williams-Yulee contends that the fundraising bar does little, if anything, to promote judicial integrity, while at the same time chilling the speech of candidates.

Mass Mailings

Williams-Yulee says the law goes too far by barring candidates from asking for money in speeches and mass mailings. Those solicitations “present little or no risk of undue pressure or the appearance of a quid pro quo,” her lawyers argued in the appeal.

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

The case, which the court will consider early next year, is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 13-1499.

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