Lanell Williams-Yulee, who has practiced law in Florida, decided to run for a seat on the county court. She asked for financial support in meeting the primacy election fund raiser goals on her letter and signed and mailed the letter to local voters. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against her for violating the Florida’s Code, including the ban on personal solicitation of campaign funds.
A State may restrict the speech of a judicial candidate only if the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.
Florida’s Canon 7C(1), based on a provision in the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct, governs fundraising in judicial elections. The law prohibits judicial candidates from soliciting campaign funds personally. Lanell Williams-Yulee has practiced law in Florida and decided to run for a seat on the county court. She drafted a letter announcing her candidacy, which stated that an early contribution made payable to ‘Lanelll Williams-Yulee Campaign for County Judge’ will help raise the initial funds… and that she asks for support in meeting the primacy election fund raiser goals. Yulee signed and mailed the letter to local voters. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against her for violating the Florida’s statute, including the ban on personal solicitation of campaign funds. Both parties agree that Canon 7C(1) restricts Yulee’s speech on the basis of its content but they disagree about the level of scrutiny that should govern our law.
Does the First Amendment permit States to prohibit judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting funds for their campaigns?
No. Judges are not politicians, even when judges come to the bench after they get voted like politicians. 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 without having personally asked anyone for money.
The State has no power to restrict speech on the basis of its content unless a widespread and longstanding tradition ratifies its regulation. No such tradition exists here. Moreover, banning candidates from asking for money personally “favors some candidates over others – incumbent judges over non-judicial candidates. This danger of judicially imposed favoritism is what the First Amendment seeks to remove. Also, the majority nor the State has failed to identify any evidence that banning requests for contributions will substantially improve public trust in judges.
States should possess the power to enact campaign-finance rules geared to judicial elections and because judges are different than politicians, States may regulate judicial elections differently than they regulate political elections. Further, studies show that money pressure groups spend on judicial elections can affect decision-making and this threatens the judicial independence.
Under Republican Party of Minn. v. White, strict scrutiny applies to this case. Thus, a State may restrict the speech of a judicial candidate only if the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest. Here, Canon 7C(1) advances the State’s compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary. Judges, responsible for exercising strict neutrality and independence, cannot ask campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity.
Yulee’s argument that the Canon is not narrowly tailored to advance the State’s compelling interest through the least restrictive means has no merit because the Canon leaves judicial candidates free to discuss any issue with any person at any time. Candidates can write letters, give speeches, or contact potential supporters in person or promote their campaigns on radio or television. While they cannot personally ask for campaign funds, they can direct their campaign committees to do so.