Voters in the Tampa area didn’t think much of Lanell Williams-Yulee’s campaign for county judge in 2010, and the group that regulates Florida’s lawyers didn’t much like her campaign tactics. Along with being drubbed in the election, she was hauled before the Florida Bar for violating its ban on personally soliciting campaign contributions by sending a “Dear Friend” letter asking for money. Five years after the Supreme Court freed corporations and labor unions to spend freely in federal elections, the justices will hear arguments Tuesday in Williams-Yulee’s challenge to the Florida rules, which she says violate her right to speak freely. The state bar, defending the ban on personal fundraising, says it’s more important to preserve public confidence in an impartial judiciary. In 39 states, state and local judges get their jobs by being elected. Florida is among the 30 of those that prohibit candidates from personally asking for campaign contributions. If Williams-Yulee prevails, it could free judicial candidates in those states to make personal appeals for campaign cash. In the federal judicial system, including the Supreme Court, judges are appointed to life terms and must be confirmed by the Senate.
Supporters of the solicitation ban point to a dramatic increase in money raised and spent on judicial campaigns. In state Supreme Court races alone, $207 million was spent between 2000 and 2009, up from $83 million in the preceding decade, according to a study by several groups concerned about money in politics. Polls also have shown that the public thinks campaign contributions make a difference in the outcome of cases.
The Supreme Court has generally been skeptical of limits on political campaigns, though slightly less so when it comes to those involving judges.
In 2002, the court struck down rules aimed at fostering impartiality among judges that barred candidates for elected judgeships from speaking out on controversial issues. But in 2009, the court held in a case from West Virginia that elected judges could be forced to step aside from ruling on cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.