Supreme Court struggles with judicial candidates' personal appeals for campaign dollars

Associated Press

A divided Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with whether states can prohibit personal appeals for campaign contributions by candidates for elected judgeships.

The justices heard arguments in a case from Florida, five years after the court's Citizens United ruling freed corporations and labor unions from limits on spending in elections for Congress and president.

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The court's conservative justices prevailed in that case by a 5-4 vote. The same ideological divide was apparent Tuesday.

Chief Justice John Roberts was among those who suggested that candidates for judicial offices have a broad right to seek contributions.

The choice "was made by the state when they said judges will be elected," Roberts said.

Several liberal justices said lawyers might have a hard time refusing to contribute when a judge personally asks for campaign cash.

Justice Elena Kagan imagined a judge's letter asking for a donation and reminding the lawyer that he will have future cases in front of the judge. "'I hope I always will be fair,'" Kagan said, using a phrase that might persuade a sensible attorney to contribute.

Justice Anthony Kennedy could hold the deciding vote and he said little during the hour-long session. He has been a critical voice against campaign finance limits and restrictions on judicial candidates' speech in the past.

The case of Lanell Williams-Yulee of Tampa, Florida, was before the court Tuesday. Williams-Yulee received a public reprimand for violating a Florida Bar rule that bans candidates for elected judgeships from personally soliciting donations.

The bar and many good government groups argued that the ban that is in place in Florida and 29 other states is important to preserve public confidence in an impartial judiciary.

Barry Richard, representing the bar at the high court, said the prohibition on personal appeals is among steps taken by every state to "set higher standards for the judicial branch."

A ruling for Williams-Yulee could free judicial candidates in those states to ask personally for campaign contributions.

In all, voters in 39 states elect local and state judges. In the federal judicial system, including the Supreme Court, judges are appointed to life terms and must be confirmed by the Senate.

The justices already have struck down limits on what judicial candidates can say during campaigns. In 2002, the court struck down rules that were aimed at fostering impartiality among judges and barred candidates for elected judgeships from speaking out on controversial issues.

But in 2009, the court held in a case from West Virginia that elected judges could be forced to step aside from ruling on cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

Lower courts have been split on the issue in the Florida case.

Williams-Yulee ran into trouble when she signed and mailed a generic "Dear Friend" fundraising letter that sought contributions of up to $500 for her campaign for a local judgeship. She also posted it on her website. She would have been in the clear had the letter been signed by anyone else. And nothing prevents a candidate from learning who did or did not give, or writing personal thank-you notes to contributors.

Williams-Yulee received just 20 percent of the vote in the 2010 election. Her appeal for money was no rousing success either. Her lawyer, Andrew Pincus, said it didn't yield a cent.