Tampa lawyer Lanell Williams-Yulee’s 2010 campaign for Hillsborough County judge was in many ways one she might like to forget. Not only did she lose in a landslide to a longtime incumbent, she was rebuked by the Florida Bar and fined a little more than $1,800. Voters failed to find Williams-Yulee’s candidacy compelling, but the Supreme Court has taken a greater interest. Later this month, the justices will consider whether the action that got the lawyer into trouble — violating Florida’s restriction against directly soliciting contributions to judge campaigns — is instead an unreasonable constraint on Williams-Yulee’s right to free speech. Florida is among the vast majority of states that require the election of at least some judges. (Federal judges, by contrast, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to lifetime appointments.) But 30 states prohibit judicial candidates from directly asking for campaign contributions, in most cases leaving that work to a committee the candidate establishes. The Florida Supreme Court, in finding the restriction constitutional, said the prohibition was “one of a constellation of provisions designed to ensure that judges engaged in campaign activities are able to maintain their status as fair and impartial arbiters of the law.” But others see it as a contradiction, or like being a little pregnant.
“By forcing judges to run for their seats, the state requires candidates to cull favor,” said a brief filed by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
The brief said the Supreme Court should be skeptical of a state proclaiming it has a compelling interest in preventing the appearance of bias “if the state itself has undermined the public’s confidence in the impartiality of judges by choosing to select them through popular election.”