By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared closely divided as it weighed whether candidates running for elected judge positions can be barred from soliciting campaign contributions.
Lanell Williams-Yulee, who was running in 2009 for county court judge in Tampa, objected when the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded her for violating a rule that prevents candidates from seeking donations. She argued that the rule violates her free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The court's conservative justices appeared to favor Williams-Yulee's free speech argument. The court's liberals voiced support for the state's right to ensure the impartiality of the judiciary.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said little during the argument, is likely to be the swing vote on the nine-member court.
Williams-Yulee had sent a mass-mail campaign fundraising letter asking for donations of up to $500. She ultimately lost the election.
Courts are divided on the donation issue with some, like the Florida court, saying the bans are warranted in the interests of ensuring that judicial candidates would be impartial if they win election. Thirty-nine of the 50 U.S. states have judicial elections in lower courts, according to the American Bar Association.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1499.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)