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Supreme Court upholds limits on judges’ appeals for campaign cash

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that states may limit candidates for elected state and local judgeships from making a personal appeal for campaign contributions.

The justices’ 5-4 ruling means in 30 states that elect state and local judges, restrictions on judicial candidates and their campaign solicitations can remain in place. In all, 39 states hold elections for judges and some allow personal appeals.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his majority opinion that laws barring judicial candidates from personally asking for campaign cash do not run afoul of First Amendment free speech rights.

“Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot,” Roberts said. “A state may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor — and without having personally asked anyone for money.”

The court’s four liberal justices joined Roberts.

The ruling took note of concerns that lawyers in particular might have a hard time refusing to contribute when a judge personally asks for campaign cash.

The case of Lanell Williams-Yulee of Tampa, Florida, arose after Williams-Yulee signed a mass-mailing asking for money for her campaign for a local judgeship, and also posted the letter on her website. The appeal didn’t yield a penny, but Williams-Yulee received a public reprimand for violating a Florida Bar rule that bans candidates for elected judgeships from personally soliciting donations.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the Florida rule a “wildly disproportionate restriction upon speech” that should be struck down under the First Amendment. Scalia said the electoral setting “calls for all the more vigilance” in protecting free speech rights.

The justices had previously struck down limits on what judicial candidates can say during campaigns. In 2002, the court struck down rules that were aimed at fostering impartiality among judges and 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.

Lower courts have been split on the issue in the Florida case.

The justices themselves have no personal experience with seeking elected office. Like all federal judges, they are appointed to lifetime terms after confirmation by the Senate. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the last member of the court with electoral experience, having been elected to the state Senate and a county court in Arizona.

The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 13-1499.