The Case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar

In a notable departure from recent cases loosening the reins on campaign speech and spending, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a decision in April 2015 that advocates consider a resounding victory for fair and impartial courts. In a decision that The Washington Post called “the most surprising of the term,” the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar 1 that states can prohibit judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. 2 In so doing, it effectively solidified a key aspect of judicial campaign fundraising laws in the majority of states.

As in most states, Florida’s code of judicial conduct prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions, whether in person, over the phone, through a direct mailing, or otherwise. Instead, candidates typically set up a separate campaign committee that raises funds on their behalf. Florida adopted its personal solicitation rule in the wake of corruption scandals that led to the resignation of four of the seven justices on Florida’s high court in the 1970s, including a justice who was caught on camera rolling dice at a craps table in Las Vegas, his trip allegedly funded by a Miami dog track owner with a case pending before the court. Lanell Williams-Yulee, a candidate for a Florida county court judgeship who was sanctioned by the Florida Bar for signing a mass mailing letter soliciting campaign contributions, argued that this rule infringed on her First Amendment right to free speech.

In upholding Florida’s rule, Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion emphasized the paramount importance of protecting the integrity of the courts, and preserving both the appearance and reality that “judges will apply the law without fear or favor.” The opinion recognized that contributions to judicial candidates may lead to the perception of favoritism 3—and the practical reality that the majority of judicial campaign donors are the same lawyers and litigants who expect to appear before the judge they support. “Judges, charged with exercising strict neutrality and independence, cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity,” the Chief Justice concluded.

Williams-Yulee affirms the ability of states to undertake reasonable regulations to protect the integrity of their courts—and could open the door to stronger state regulation. It is now up to states to heed the U.S. Supreme Court’s call and take stronger steps to insulate judges from inappropriate political and special-interest influence.

Notes:

  1. Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 135 S. Ct. 1656 (2015). The Brennan Center and Justice at Stake, along with five other organizations, filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Florida Bar.
  2. Robert Barnes, Roberts at Center Stage as Supreme Court Approaches Historic Decisions, The Washington Post (May 3, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/roberts-at-center-stage-as-supreme-court-approaches-historic-decisions/2015/05/03/4b9401c6-f004-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html.
  3. Public opinion reflected this concern as well: in a poll commissioned by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice in late 2014, 63 percent of respondents said that their confidence in the courts would be lowered if judges were able to personally solicit campaign contributions. Of this group, 81 percent said that their confidence would be lowered “a great deal.” See Alicia Bannon, Soliciting Donations Discredits the Judiciary, The Brennan Center for Justice (Jan. 26, 2015), https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/soliciting-donations-discredits-judiciary.