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Campaign Rules Help Keep Judges Fair and Impartial

Judicial candidates are fundamentally different than political candidates. Allowing them to personally ask lawyers and litigants who may later appear before them in court for money may raise questions about the impartiality of their rulings.

January 20, 2015

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, a case in which the Court will decide whether Florida may prohibit judicial candidates from personally asking donors for campaign contributions.

Lawyers for the petitioner argued today that Florida’s rule violates judicial candidates’ First Amendment right to communicate with prospective voters. The Florida Bar, however, argued that the state’s compelling interest in protecting judicial integrity justifies the modest restriction on judicial candidate speech.

“Judicial candidates are fundamentally different than political candidates,” said Matthew Menendez, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Judges serve a unique role in our democracy as neutral arbiters of the law. States put rules in place to protect judges against the appearances of judicial bias. Allowing prospective judges to put a hand out to lawyers and litigants who may later appear before them in court may make people think twice about whether a ruling was influenced by the law or by the contents of a litigant’s pocketbook.”

Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar has broad implications for courts nationwide as 30 of the 39 states that elect their judges have similar restrictions in place. Although barred from personally soliciting campaign donations, judicial candidates may still fundraise through a separate campaign committee.

The Brennan Center for Justice and others filed an amicus brief in the case, available here.