Impact of Judicial Campaign Solicitation Ruling Examined

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonThe U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, upholding a ban on direct solicitation by judicial candidates of campaign donations, is getting continued debate in states around the country.

An INDY Week blog post from North Carolina quoted Justice at Stake commending the ruling last week (see Gavel Grab) and said the state could change its laws to conform with the decision. Melissa Kromm of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections told the blog she wanted to emphasize Chief Justice John Roberts writing in the majority opinion, “The public may lack confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice if he comes to office by asking favors.”

At The (Raleigh) News & Observer, an op-ed by Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress was headlined, “NC must help affirm that judges are not politicians.” (more…)

More Surprising Decisions from Chief Justice Roberts?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.It’s called the “Roberts Court” so of course U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts garners a lot of attention. But his profile is rising even more with the pending Affordable Care Act and marriage equality decisions.

The Washington Post reports Roberts is not only the court’s most visible justice but also its most scrutinized. He is expected to play a pivotal role in both high profile cases that will affect millions of Americans. He’s already surprised some with his decisions this term, and last week’s opinion in the Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar case may be the most shocking and upset some conservatives.

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Florida Supreme Court Justice Applauds Yulee Decision

pariente0807In an interview on the public radio show The Takeaway, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente talks about the Supreme Court’s decision in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar and the problem of money in judicial elections.

The decision, which The Takeaway characterized as a “quiet little ruling that shocked the world of campaign finance,” upheld Florida’s ban on personal campaign solicitations by judges and judicial candidates.  Justice Pariente called it an “important recognition of the difference” between the two political branches of government and the judicial branch.

Justice Pariente also talked about the serious problem of dark money in judicial elections, in which shadowy groups spend to put judges on the bench in hopes of advancing a political agenda.  She mentioned Justice at Stake among groups that are working toward a resolution of this problem, by advocating for reforms such as merit selection of judges.

Williams-Yulee May Spark New Regulations… But Not Likely in Georgia

In light of the Supreme Court ruling in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, some states may begin introducing and reintroducing bans on judicial candidates soliciting donations, according to Law 360.

“In the nine states that both elect judges on some level and also haven’t put in these sorts of solicitation bans, this is encouraging to them,” confirms Scott Greytak of Justice at Stake. It seems that Georgia, which had a rule similar to Florida’s overturned by a federal court in 2002, may not follow that path.

Lester Tate, chairman of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, told the Daily Report that public confidence in the state judiciary has not “noticeably diminished” since the ban was overturned. “In our nonpartisan system, you need to have bipartisan support,” Tate says, and that has helped Georgia’s judicial elections remain relatively low key compared to other states.

Others, such as plaintiff’s attorney Ken Shigley, is worried that direct solicitation creates “an impression of justice for sale,” and could lead to a “total undermining of any confidence in the elected judiciary.”

Some, including Greytak, hope that the decision will lead more people to question the prudence of electing judges in the first place: “When the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court states definitively that judges are not the same as politicians, it raises the question of why in 39 states we choose our judges the same way we choose our politicians. We hope this opens up a broader conversation about the utility of electing judges.”

See Gavel Grab for more information on the decision, and other fair courts issues.

‘Williams-Yulee’ Roundup: The Importance of a ‘Minor Dispute’

Bert Brandenburg
Bert Brandenburg

Chief Justice John Roberts differentiated elected judges from other elected officials in the Williams-Yulee decision, the Washington Post reports. “In deciding cases, a judge is not to follow the preferences of his supporters, or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors,” he wrote. Forbes called the case a “minor dispute,” but the Post quoted Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg on why it is so important:

“Today’s decision helps judges by saving them from the compromising job of raising cash from people whose cases they will decide. It helps our court system by shoring up its ability to be fair and impartial. And it helps the public by reassuring them that they will not find themselves in court before a judge who has received a check directly from the opposing party in their case.”

In an interview with Nina Totenberg of NPR, Brandenburg said the decision will help to protect the judiciary: “More and more people are realizing that the courts can’t be fair if the judges are not insulated from political pressure, and that insulation is getting eaten away by money.”

To read more on the case and its implications, see the following articles: USA TODAY, Supreme Court: ‘Judges are not politicians’ when it comes to fundraising; New York Times, When Good News is No News;  LA Times, States can ban elected judges from asking for campaign money, Supreme Court says; NPR, Court: Corporations May Be People, But ‘Judges Are Not Politicians’; and Huffington Post, Supreme Court Actually Upholds Campaign Finance Restrictions On Judicial Fundraising.

Breaking News: SCOTUS Upholds Judicial Campaign Finance Rules

Yulee WinIn a 5-4 decision in Williams Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on direct solicitation of campaign donations by judicial candidates.

Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg released the following statement:

“Our courts need public trust to protect our rights, but confidence in the courts is under siege from the explosion in big money judicial elections. Bans on personal campaign solicitations by judges and judicial candidates are entirely reasonable provisions that work to preserve public trust in our courts.  Today’s decision helps judges, by saving them from the compromising job of raising cash from people whose cases they will decide. It helps our court system, by shoring up its ability to be fair and impartial.  And it helps the public, by reassuring them that they will not find themselves in court before a judge who has received a check directly from the opposing party in their case.”

Justice Ginsburg cited a poll by Justice at Stake in her concurrence: “87% of voters stated that advertisements purchased by interest groups during judicial elections can have either ‘some’ or ‘a great deal of influence’ on an elected “judge’s later decisions.”

See Gavel Grab for background on the case and its importance.

Sue Bell Cobb Calls Judicial Election Fundraising ‘Tawdry’

Former Chief Justice  Sue Bell Cobb
Former Chief Justice
Sue Bell Cobb

It’s a “tawdry” business for judges to have to ask for campaign money from lawyers or businesses that may appear before them in court, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said on NPR’s Fresh Air show.

“It’s just not the way that judges ought to be elected because it is really tawdry,” she said. “It’s difficult. It’s demeans the court, demeans the position. It’s just not appropriate. It absolutely makes people think less of the courts and judges. Nobody wants judges to have their hands out.”

When she was campaigning, Justice Cobb said, she declined to personally request donations herself and left that chore to her campaign staff. She knew the amounts that donors gave but felt better not to be directly soliciting the money.

“[T]hat’s when it became so crystal clear to me that it was like legalized extortion,” she said, according to an Al.com article. “We can do it ethically, legally. Judicial candidates in Alabama and in several other states can do it, but Florida’s got it right. Florida has got it right with a ban against judges and judicial candidates personally soliciting for contributions.” (more…)

National Coverage of Judicial Election Flaws Is Growing

Former Chief Justice  Sue Bell Cobb
Former Chief Justice
Sue Bell Cobb

Last week, Politico published an op-ed by former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb that illuminated the problems that plague judicial elections. In the days since, additional editorials have echoed Cobb’s calls to depoliticize state courts.

The Anniston Star concluded an editorial on the piece by calling on Alabama legislators to make the process “more ethical” by changing to non-partisan elections or instituting a merit selection system, whereby the governor would select judges from a list compiled by an independent commission.

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Column: ‘Isolate’ Judges from Donors and Money

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonIn a column for the Pennsylvania legal journal The Legal Intelligencer, attorney Charles Kelbley asks Does campaign money corrupt judges?” Kelbley writes about the Supreme Court case Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, in which a Florida ban on personal campaign solicitations by judges is under review (see Gavel Grab).  His conclusion: the Florida ban doesn’t go far enough.

Kelbley notes that while Florida’s ethics rule does not allow judges or judicial candidates to ask for money themselves, it does allow them to form committees to fundraise on their behalf.  The committees may inform the judge or candidate who has donated, and the judge may thank the donor.  This, Kelbley argues, effectively undermines any attempt of the ban to keep judges from being influenced by campaign contributions.

“What we need, arguably, is a rule far stricter than the Florida rule, ” he writes. “We should have a rule that completely isolates judges and candidates from donors and money. Without that, the judiciary moves closer to the political branches’ characteristic embrace of donors and their donations, which are fraught with ethical danger.”

For a quick summary of what’s at issue in the Yulee case, watch this short video with Justice at Stake’s Scott Greytak. Kelbley’s Legal Intelligencer piece is available through searching by Google.