The Supreme Court offered a pleasant surprise this week to those of us worried about the role of money in elections. In a 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court on Wednesday upheld a rule limiting certain fundraising activities for judicial candidates. But don’t expect Williams-Yulee vs. State Bar to lead to a more widespread return to campaign-finance sanity; the ruling applies only to judicial elections and Roberts isn’t about to concede that free-flowing donations are tainting the political system. First, the good news: Roberts finally found a campaign finance limitation, aside from disclosure, that he was willing to uphold — a true rarity. At issue was a Florida State Bar rule that prevents judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Lanell Williams-Yulee, who broke the rule by sending out a mailing asking for money, argued that it violated her 1st Amendment right to speak.
She had a strong case. Back in 2002, the Supreme Court held that the 1st Amendment applied to candidate speech in judicial elections in much the same way that it applied in regular elections. It also held that a Minnesota law preventing judicial candidates from “announcing” their positions on certain issues was unconstitutional.
Roberts agreed that Florida’s personal solicitation rule raised serious 1st Amendment issues — so serious, in fact, that the law would have to be judged under the court’s toughest level of review: strict scrutiny.
Usually laws under this standard are struck down. But Roberts found that the law was justified, because it helped maintain the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. He seemed to relax the strict scrutiny standard a bit in explaining how the law was narrowly, if not “perfectly,” tailored to that interest.