Supreme Court Upholds Florida Rule Banning Personal Solicitation by Judicial Candidates

Supreme Court Upholds Florida Rule Banning Personal Solicitation by Judicial Candidates

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“Florida, and the 39 other states that elect judges, must be allowed to place reasonable restrictions on how these candidates raise money in order to guard against a perception among the public that justice is for sale.”

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In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday ruled to uphold a Florida rule that helps keep courts impartial by prohibiting judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar.

In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot…Florida has reasonably determined that personal appeals for money by a judicial candidate inherently create an appearance of impropriety that may cause the public to lose confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”

“We are delighted at the decision from the Supreme Court. As the country prepares for another election year, this rule and others like it are critically important to keeping courts fair and making sure that justice cannot be bought,” said Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Manager at Lambda Legal. “This flood of money has dramatically altered the politics of judicial races, blurring the line that separates justice from politics. The stakes in this case are high with our due process rights at risk. Judges have a responsibility to render decisions based on the law and a firm commitment to the Constitution’s core principles of equality and fairness.  Florida, and the 39 other states that elect their judges, must be allowed to place reasonable restrictions on how these candidates raise money in order to guard against a perception among the public that justice is for sale.”

In 2009, Lanell Williams-Yulee signed a letter seeking campaign contributions in her unsuccessful run for Hillsborough County Judge. The Florida Supreme Court found this to be a violation of Canon 7C(1) (the “solicitation clause”) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, which states that a candidate “for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds.” Williams-Yulee challenged the reprimand, alleging that the rule infringed on her constitutionally protected right to free speech. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that argument, leading to this Supreme Court appeal by Williams-Yulee.

Last December, Lambda Legal and six other advocacy organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case urging the Supreme Court to reject the petitioner’s claim and uphold Florida’s rule banning direct solicitation by judicial candidates in order to protect judges against the appearance of judicial bias and maintain the public’s confidence in the fairness of the courts. Lambda Legal and the other organizations argued that Florida has a compelling interest in promoting the appearance and reality of an impartial judiciary and that the Florida rule imposes a minor restriction on judicial candidates.

Lambda Legal’s Fair Courts Project works to preserve judicial independence and improve access to justice for all people. The success of Lambda Legal’s work in the courts depends on the assurance that our clients will receive a fair and impartial hearing. Lambda Legal joined this brief with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Justice at Stake; Campaign Legal Center; Common Cause; Center for Media and Democracy; and Demos.

The decision can be found here.

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