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U.S. Supreme Court upholds Florida’s judicial rule prohibiting direct campaign contribution solicitations by judges and judicial candidates

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the very recent United States Supreme Court opinion upholding Florida’s judicial rule prohibiting judges and judicial candidates from directly soliciting campaign contributions.  The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, No. 13-1499.  (April 29, 2015).  The link to the opinion is here:

A Florida lawyer named Lanell Williams-Yulee was a 2009 candidate for a county court judgeship.  She signed a letter asking potential voters to donate to her campaign.  She lost the election and was subsequently prosecuted by The Florida Bar as a lawyer for an alleged violation of 7C(1) the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.  After the lawyer was found guilty, The Florida Supreme Court reviewed the matter and upheld the guilty finding.  The lawyer then filed for a Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Canon, arguing that it violated the First Amendment by restricting her speech.

As background, the Florida Supreme Court implemented the prohibition of direct solicitation for judges and judicial candidates in the 1970s after three of that Court’s justices resigned as a result corruption scandals. The opinion states that, “(a)ccording to the American Bar Association, 30 of the 39 States that elect trial or appellate judges have adopted restrictions similar to Canon 7C(1).”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion which upheld the prohibition of direct solicitation.  Interestingly, he was on the same side as the four liberal justices.   The opinion states:

“Unlike the executive or the legislature, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse; . . . neither force nor will but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78, p. 465 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton) (capitalization altered). The judiciary’s authority therefore depends in large measure on the public’s willingness to respect and follow its decisions.”


“A State’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary extends beyond its interest in preventing the appearance of corruption in legislative and executive elections, because a judge’s role differs from that of a politician. Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U. S. 765, 783. Unlike a politician, who is expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of supporters, a judge in deciding cases may not follow the preferences of his supporters or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. As in White, therefore, precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.”

“Yulee relies heavily on the provision of Canon 7C(1) that allows solicitation by a candidate’s campaign committee. But Florida, along with most other States, has reasonably concluded that solicitation by the candidate personally creates a categorically different and more severe risk of undermining public confidence than does solicitation by a campaign committee. When the judicial candidate himself asks for money, the stakes are higher for all involved. A judicial candidate asking for money places his name and reputation behind the request, and the solicited individual knows that the same person who signed the fundraising letter might one day sign the judgment. This dynamic inevitably creates pressure for the recipient to comply, in a way that solicitation by a third party does not. Just as inevitably, the personal involvement of the candidate in the solicitation creates the public appearance that the candidate will remember who says yes, and who says no. However similar the two solicitations may be in substance, a State may conclude that they present markedly different appearances to the public.”


“The desirability of judicial elections is a question that has sparked disagreement for more than 200 years, but it is not the Court’s place to resolve that enduring debate. The Court’s limited task is to apply the Constitution to the question presented in this case. Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict. A State’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity.”

“(W)e hold today what we assumed in White:  A State may restrict the speech of a judicial candidate only if the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.”  “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. And a State’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office. A State may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor—and without having personally asked anyone for money. We affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his dissent, states that “(b)y cutting off one candidate’s personal freedom to speak, the broader campaign debate that might have followed—a debate that might have been informed by new ideas and insights from both candidates—now is silenced” along with the “educational process that free speech in elections should facilitate.”


Bottom line:  This is an important U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a Florida prohibition of solicitation by a judge or judicial candidate in the ongoing (and long running) debate regarding the balancing of First Amendment/free speech with the regulation of judicial elections.  The decision is surprising since the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority has stricken down virtually every campaign-finance limitation in the past decade, stating that political contributions spending are the equivalent of free speech, which generally cannot be limited.  In addition, Chief Justice Roberts joined the four liberal justices in the decision.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

[email protected]





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