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Court Case

Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (Amicus Brief)

The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of prohibitions on direct solicitation by candidates for judicial office.

Published: April 29, 2015

On April 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar. By a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld a Florida rule prohibiting judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Chief Justice Roberts joined Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan in the majority. 

The Controlling Opinion

Chief Justice Roberts: “Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict.” 

The Brennan Center’s Brief for Appellee

The Brennan Center for Justice and others filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of prohibitions on direct solicitation by candidates for judicial office. The Brennan Center argued that states have a duty to protect the integrity of their courts and that when judges personally solicit campaign funds, it creates the perception that they may favor a particular contributor in a future case or disfavor lawyers and litigants who choose not to contribute or are not solicited. Florida’s rule, which allows candidates to fundraise via a separate committee, the brief argued, is a reasonable and targeted response to the threat to judicial impartiality. 

Brennan Center Amicus Brief in Support of Appellee

Background

Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar concerns the balance between the right to free speech and the compelling state interest in preserving public confidence in the courts. The petitioner, Lanell Williams-Yulee, signed a letter seeking campaign contributions in her unsuccessful 2009 run for Hillsborough County Judge. The Florida Supreme Court found this to be a violation of Canon 7C(1) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, which states that a candidate “for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds.”

Williams-Yulee challenged the reprimand, alleging that Canon 7C(1) infringed on her constitutionally-protected right to free speech. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that argument, “hold[ing] that the Canon is constitutional because it 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.” Williams-Yulee was publically reprimanded and made to pay $1,860 dollars in court costs.

Petition Summary

In the petition submitted to the High Court, Ms. Williams-Yulee’s attorneys contend that the solicitation clause violates the First Amendment, chilling free speech without accomplishing its intended goals of preserving judicial integrity. They assert that the canon is overbroad in prohibiting speeches to large groups and signed mass mailings, activities which they claim “present little or no risk of undue pressure or the appearance of a quid pro quo.”

The Florida Bar declined to oppose the petition, instead joining the petitioner to request consideration by the Court. The bar writes that the case “deals 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.”

Split in the Lower Courts

Advocates in the field have expected the Court to take a case dealing with the issue of direct solicitation in light of a divide which has developed in the lower courts. At the federal level, the Third and Seventh Circuits have upheld these regulations against First Amendment challenges, as have the highest state courts of Arkansas, Florida, Maine, and Oregon. In contrast, the Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits have found that, at least in some circumstances, these restrictions on judicial campaign solicitation may violate candidates’ First Amendment rights. Moreover, the courts have not reached consensus on the appropriate standard of scrutiny, with some applying strict scrutiny and some appearing to apply a less-searching “close fit” test between the restriction and the goal of protecting confidence in the judiciary.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on the speech rights of judicial candidates was in 2002, when, in a split decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, it struck down a rule that barred candidates for judgeships from announcing their views on legal and political issues. Yet the role of money in politics has grown significantly in the intervening years.

Supreme Court Documents

Merit Briefs

Amicus Briefs Filed in Support of Petitioner Lanell Williams-Yulee

Amicus Briefs Filed in Support of Respondent The Florida Bar

Certiorari Stage

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