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U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up Florida Lawyer’s Appeal of Ban on Judicial Candidates’ Campaign Solicitations

| October 2, 2014

Lanell Williams-Yulee could change campaign finance laws.

Lanell Williams-Yulee could change campaign finance laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court this afternoon (Oct. 2) agreed to hear a case from Florida that, judging from the court’s recent precedents, may further reduce campaign finance regulations. The court agreed to hear former Hillsborough County judicial candidate Lanell Williams-Yulee’s appeal of a Florida Supreme Court decision that upheld the state’s ban judicial candidates personally soliciting campaign contributions.

The Florida Bar disciplined Williams-Yulee for seeking to raise money by signing a campaign fund-raising letter in September 2009, when she was an assistant public defender (she had listed herself as “public defender” in the letter). She was fined $1,860, which she had to pay the Florida Bar. It was her only disciplinary issue before the bar since 1991.


Florida is among 38 states where judges at one level or another are elected rather than appointed. It is among the thirty states that ban judicial candidates from personally soliciting contributions.

“This Court recognizes that by prohibiting judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions, Canon 7C(1) clearly restricts a judicial
candidate’s speech,” the Florida Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision read,m referring to the rule in question. “Therefore, in order to be constitutional and not in violation of the First Amendment, Canon 7C(1) must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

The court ruled that that state interest exists to preserve the integrity of the judiciary, as it does in the many other states that have similar rules. The court cited an Oregon Supreme Court decision that found that the compelling state interest served by the solicitation restriction “is the state’s interest in maintaining, not only the integrity of the judiciary, but also the appearance of that integrity. The persons most actively interested in judicial races, and the persons who are the most consistent contributors to judicial campaigns, are lawyers and potential litigants. The impression created when a lawyer or potential litigant, who may from time to time come before a particular judge, contributes to the campaign of that judge is always unfortunate. Although many or most lawyers may act with pure motives, viz., to ensure a qualified judiciary and to ensure vigorous public debate, the outside observer cannot but think that the lawyer or potential litigant either expects to get special treatment from the judge or, at the least, hopes to get such treatment. It follows that, if it is at all possible to do so, the spectacle of lawyers or potential litigants directly handing over money to judicial candidates should be avoided if the public is to have faith in the impartiality of its judiciary.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in sharpky divided decisions, has been re-writing the rules of campaign finance in the last several years, eliminating limits on campaign funding and interpreting such limits as restrictions on speech and violations of the First Amendment.

The previous story is below.

Ex-Florida County Judge Candidate Wants U.S. Supremes to Overturn Ban on Campaign Cash

Sept. 3, 2014–When Lanell Williams-Yulee began running for a Hillsborough County judgeship in 2009, she signed a letter to would-be supporters seeking contributions for her campaign.

Now, five years later, Williams-Yulee’s letter could spur the U.S. Supreme Court to wade into a First Amendment debate about whether it is constitutional for Florida and other states to bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions.

Williams-Yulee’s attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue, after the Florida Supreme Court in May rejected arguments that the ban is unconstitutional and found that Williams-Yulee violated a code of conduct.

The possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the issue got a boost last month when The Florida Bar — which filed the complaint against Williams-Yulee — also urged the high court to resolve the matter. The Bar said in an Aug. 22 brief that it stands behind its position that judicial candidates should not personally solicit contributions, but that appellate courts across the country have taken differing positions on the issue.

“The issues at the heart of the conflicts are not such that they can accommodate different interpretations and applications in different jurisdictions and judicial forums without insulting fundamental principles,” said the brief filed by Bar attorneys Barry Richard and Hope Keating. “In this instance, the conflicts deal with the proper balance between two compelling interests at the heart of a free and just society. The manner in which that balance is struck should be applied uniformly to all citizens in all places and before all tribunals.”

The Florida Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling May 1, reiterated earlier positions that the ban on judicial candidates soliciting money “promotes the state’s compelling interests in preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary, and that it is narrowly tailored to effectuate those interests.” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E. Perry were in the majority, while justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented.

But in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue, attorneys for Williams-Yulee said the prohibition violates First Amendment rights. They wrote in a June brief that “there is little doubt that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in this case is wrong. (The canon of the state’s code of judicial conduct involved in the case) is a content- and speaker-based restriction on political speech; such laws rarely survive strict judicial scrutiny, and this one should not.”

It remains unknown whether the U.S. Supreme Court, which receives thousands of requests a year to hear cases, will take up the matter. The briefs were posted last week on the website SCOTUSblog.

While judicial candidates are barred from personally soliciting contributions, they can establish committees that are allowed to raise and spend money. The June brief filed by Williams-Yulee’s attorneys says 39 states use some form of electing judges, with 30 having laws or rules aimed at preventing personal solicitations of contributions. It said 22 of the 30 are “blanket” prohibitions, similar to the Florida ban.

Williams-Yulee, who lost her bid to become a Hillsborough County judge, received a reprimand in the Florida Supreme Court decision. Her attorneys, including a Yale Law School faculty member and attorneys from Washington and Orlando, contended in the brief that the case presents a good “vehicle” to resolve the issue nationally.

“The Florida Supreme Court expressly reached and clearly decided the federal constitutional issue, and none of the relevant facts is in dispute,” the brief said. “And this case involves a mass mailing by a non-judge candidate — precisely the kind of innocuous communication that (three federal appellate courts) expressly agree is protected by the First Amendment.”

–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

Lanell Williams-Yulee Judicial Misconduct Case, Florida Supreme Court (2014)

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4 Responses for “U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up Florida Lawyer’s Appeal of Ban on Judicial Candidates’ Campaign Solicitations”

  1. John Smallberries says:

    Judges and sheriffs should be appointed and not elected. That way that can actually deal with crime and punishment in a smart way, without having to worry about looking too soft to an electorate.

  2. Steve Wolfe says:

    This is interesting. In order to prevent influences from contributing parties it is allowable to collect contributions through a 3rd party. That sounds pristine on paper, but I suppose there isn’t a better idea out there. Appointments by local governing bodies still creates potential conflicts of interest, although that’s practiced in many states. But when a judicial candidate directly solicits contributions, that just swings the door wide open for deals with the devil. If this case succeeds at the SCOTUS, I can imagine more states switching from electing judges to the practice of appointments. How else can there be any appearance of impartially? Appointments aren’t going to produce absolute integrity either, but it is still a swing away from judges shaking hands and taking checks.

  3. JG says:

    If you think a Governor’s appointment of all judges has anything to do with “integrity,” I think you are crazy as hell. No offense intended.

  4. Sherry Epley says:

    Just another reason why we need “massive” campaign finance reform. There needs to be a strict set amount that can be spent on ANY campaign for government office. . . period! The federal supreme court ruling on Citizens United was the worst ruling ever made! In that moment began the “buying” of elected officials!

    Appointing judges is no better than “buying” them. . . it’s all corrupt!!!

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