BRIEF: Judicial Campaign Rules Help Keep Courts Fair and Impartial

December 24, 2014

BRIEF: Judicial Campaign Rules Help Keep Courts Fair and Impartial

The Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Center for Media and Democracy, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Demos jointly filed brief in this judicial campaign conduct case. Kaye Scholer LLP was pro bono counsel on this brief.

Florida’s rule prohibiting judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions helps protect judges against the appearance of judicial bias and bolsters the public’s confidence in the fairness of our courts, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and others argued in an amicus brief filed today.

In Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a First Amendment challenge to a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. The Brennan Center and others argue 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, is a reasonable and targeted response to the threat of judicial impartiality, the brief argues, and the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold it.

“At a time when record campaign spending has spilled into our courtrooms, rules that preserve the public’s confidence in the judiciary are more important than ever,” said Matthew Menendez, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Judges are fundamentally different than other candidates running for political office. They are constitutionally bound to uphold the rule of law without deference to the interests of voters or donors. The public relies on our courts to be fair and impartial and Florida’s rule helps remove the threat of potential bias and instills public confidence in our courts.”

Additionally, the brief points out that Florida’s rule in no way inhibits judicial candidates from communicating about their fitness for office or speaking on issues of public concern. The rule thus protects a vital interest in judicial impartiality while imposing only a minor restriction on the conduct of judicial candidates. 

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in this case on January 20, 2015. Read the brief here. Learn more about this case on the Brennan Center’s case page here.

For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact Seth Hoy at seth.hoy@nyu.edu or 646-292-8369.


Backgound:

Thirty-nine states use elections to select judges. In order to protect the impartiality of the courts, the state of Florida, like 29 other states, prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Instead, a special campaign committee solicits and collects contributions. This case involves a challenge by Lanell Williams-Yulee, who was disciplined by the Florida Bar and charged a fine for professional misconduct after sending a mass-mail fundraising letter in 2009 to launch her county court judge campaign. Williams-Yulee challenged Florida’s canon as an infringement of her right to free speech. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that challenge, reasoning that prohibiting personal solicitation by judicial candidates serves to preserve the existence and appearance of a fair and impartial judiciary. In October 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams-Yulee’s First Amendment challenge to Florida’s canon.

In the last 12 years, the Supreme Court has twice considered cases about judicial campaign activity. In 2002, the Court decided, 5-4, in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, to strike down Minnesota’s “announce clause,” a canon of judicial conduct prohibiting judicial candidates from discussing disputed and controversial legal and political issues. In another significant case, Caperton v. Massey, the Supreme Court recognized that spending in judicial campaigns could create an appearance of bias, requiring a judge to recuse himself.