WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Thursday it will resolve a growing debate over whether states that elect judges can stop candidates from directly seeking campaign contributions.
In a case that could affect hundreds of judicial races around the country, the justices will hear an appeal from a Florida judicial candidate who argues the state's ban on personal solicitation of campaign funds violates her First Amendment free speech rights.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld the ban in May, saying it was justified because such conduct raises an appearance of impropriety and may lead the public to question a judge's impartiality. The state court reprimanded Lanell Williams-Yulee for signing a mass-mail fundraising letter in 2009 announcing her candidacy for county court judge in Hillsborough County, Florida, and seeking donations for her campaign.
But Williams-Yulee argues that the law has a chilling effect on political speech. And she says the law's purported goal is essentially meaningless because there is nothing to prevent a candidate's campaign committee from requesting contributions.
"It is the general practice of electing judges, not the specific practice of judicial campaigning, that gives rise to impartiality concerns," Williams-Yulee's attorneys argue in court briefs.
Thirty-nine states allow voters to elect judges and 30 have laws or rules barring candidates from personally seeking contributions. Most of those states have blanket prohibitions similar to Florida's code of judicial conduct.
The Florida Bar has defended the ban, but in court papers it had urged the Supreme Court to take up a dispute that has deeply divided federal appeals courts and state Supreme Courts around the country. Four federal appeals court have held that similar rules in other states are unconstitutional, but two others have reached the opposite conclusion. Two state supreme courts have also struck down similar bans.
"In this instance, the conflicts deal with the proper balance between two compelling interest at the heart of a free and just society," lawyers for the Florida Bar said in a brief filed with the court. "The manner in which that balance is struck should be applied uniformly to all citizens in all places and before all tribunals."
The court will hear arguments next year in Lanell Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, 13-1499.
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