U.S. Supreme Court to rule on judicial campaign contributions

Reity O'Brien

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in a case that could undo state laws around the country that limit judicial candidates from asking potential donors for campaign contributions.

The Florida case, Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, stems from a 6-year-old ethics violation in a county court race that predated the high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which, along with a handful of other rulings, have upended many traditional limits on money in politics.

Unlike federal judges, who are appointed to lifetime tenure by the president, voters in Florida and 38 other states elect judges. Thirty of those states limit judicial candidates’ ability to personally raise money for their campaigns. Instead, “the ask” must come from a separate campaign committee, a system designed to insulate judges from bias toward the lawyers and litigants who donate — or choose not to — and then come before them in court.

At the heart of the case is the 2009 campaign of Lanell Williams-Yulee, who signed a mass-mailed letter asking for contributions as she sought a Hillsborough County trial court judgeship. The Florida Supreme Court disciplined her with a public reprimand and a $1,860 fine after The Florida Bar argued that her letter violated the state judiciary’s personal solicitation ban.  Now, Williams-Yulee brings the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue the ban infringed on her free speech.

If the court rules in favor of Williams-Yulee, her disciplinary record with The Florida Bar will be wiped clean, according to her attorney Ernest Myers. Yet the court’s decision may be more far-reaching: if it finds the Florida ban unconstitutional, Myers said, the bans in states with similar rules will likely be invalidated.

Related: Who's calling the shots in the states?

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This story is part of Who’s Calling the Shots in State Politics?. The Center exposes the powerful special interests that drive elections and policy in the states. Click here to read more stories in this blog.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.