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May 01, 2015

Supreme Court upholds Florida ban on personal solicitation of campaign funds by state judicial candidates

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision April 29 upholding a Florida state ethical rule banning state judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign funds “underscores the importance of an independent judiciary to the rule of law,” ABA President William C. Hubbard said in a statement following the ruling.

Hubbard explained that in William-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 575 U.S. ___ (2015), the Supreme Court agreed that Florida’s ethics provision is narrowly tailored to promote the state’s compelling interest in a fair and impartial judiciary free from corruption and the appearance of corruption. “The Supreme Court’s decision reaffirms the states’ vital interest in safeguarding the fairness and integrity of our nation’s elected judges,” Hubbard said.

Florida is one of 39 states where voters elect judges at the polls and one of 30 states that have adopted a version of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon 7C(1) of the Florida Supreme Court’s Code of Judicial Conduct, based on Canon 4.1 of the ABA Model Code, provides that while judicial candidates “shall not personally solicit campaign funds,” they  may establish committees of responsible persons to raise money for their election campaigns.

The Florida Bar disciplined judicial candidate Lanell Williams-Yulee for mailing and posting online a letter soliciting financial contributions. When Yulee contended that the First Amendment protects a judicial candidate’s right to personally solicit campaign funds, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the disciplinary sanctions. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. “A state may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor, and without having personally asked anyone for money.”

In an amicus brief submitted in the case, the ABA stated that as the pressure to spend more on judicial campaigns increases and as interest groups become important funding sources, solicitation bans such as Florida’s Canon 7C(1) “protect against a public perception that judicial candidates are personally soliciting funds from contributors who may expect more in return than judicial competence.”

Florida’s personal solicitation ban and similar bans adopted by 29 other states are consistent with the First Amendment in their limitation of only the personal solicitation of campaign funds by judicial candidates, the brief stated, adding that the “choice of these narrowly tailored vehicles to protect their judicial branches by avoiding the appearance of corruption, therefore, should be left to the states to make.”  

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