Williams-Yulee Supreme Court Decision: Major Victory for Fair Courts

April 29, 2015

Washington, D.C. – In a 5-4 ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, upheld a Florida rule prohibiting judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions.

“Today, the Supreme Court recognized the paramount importance of protecting the integrity of our courts,” said Matthew Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “At a time of rising spending in judicial elections, rules that preserve the public’s confidence in the judiciary are more important than ever. As the Court found, campaign contributions can create an appearance and risk of favoritism. This decision allows states to protect the fairness of our courts.”

Case Background

In Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a First Amendment challenge to a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. The Brennan Center and others argued in an amicus brief 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. 

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.

See the Brennan Center’s amicus brief here. See other briefs here.

Read The New Politics of Judicial Elections — by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute for Money in State Politics — which were cited by the Supreme Court in the Williams-Yulee opinion.