Speak Outs
Speak Out
Is a state law banning judges from asking for campaign donations unconstitutional?

February 25, 2015

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

Supreme Court justices, like all federal judges, don’t have to campaign and run for office to get or keep their jobs. But in 39 states, some, if not all, judges, must face some type of election to sit on the bench. And when there are elections, there is the need to raise campaign funds. This is where the case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, which was argued before the Supreme Court in late January, comes into play.

Florida is one of the states where judges are elected. The state has a law that prevents judges from personally asking for contributions for their campaigns. The state says the ban keeps judges impartial when ruling on cases and protects the right to due process for those seeking justice in court. Judicial candidates have to form campaign committees, which contact potential donors.

Lanell Williams-Yulee was running to be a trial judge in Hillsborough County, Fla. She sent out a signed letter to potential donors asking for contributions and made an appeal for money on her website. The state election commission fined and reprimanded Williams-Yulee for breaking the election law. She paid the fine and challenged the law, saying that it violated her First Amendment right to free speech.

She and her attorneys argued that the ban censors speech and does little to combat corruption because while judicial candidates have to set up committees for raising campaign funds, the candidates can thank their donors in person or with a thank-you card.

Recently, the Supreme Court has decided two cases on the concept of campaign contributions as political speech. The court ruled in McCutcheon et. al. v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC that campaign contributions are a form of expression, therefore rules limiting individual contributions and preventing corporations from donating to political groups were unconstitutional (Read the Speak Out: ¬Should campaign donations be considered political speech? to find out more).

In the Florida case, the Supreme Court justices were critical of the argument that the law violated the First Amendment. Williams-Yulee’s lawyer, Andrew Pincus, argued that the law was too broad and shouldn’t ban candidates from sending out mass mailings asking for contributions. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that allowing mass mailers would make it very difficult for courts to draw a line between what would be allowed and what would be illegal. He questioned whether the law would mean that courts would have to constantly rule whether a candidate’s mailing was considered mass or targeted, causing more problems for the application of the law.

The justices also indicated that judicial candidates should be above the fray of typical politics, citing laws and traditions that forbid judges from activities commonly associated with politics. Justice Antonin Scalia said: “There’s stuff we don’t let judges do that we let other people do. Such as, it’s at least tradition – I’m not sure whether it’s in any ethical rules, but let’s assume it was in ethical rule – that judges do not respond in op-ed pieces to criticisms of their decisions.”

Representing the Florida Bar, attorney Barry Richards was questioned about the inconsistency of the law, which allows the candidate to send personalized thank-you cards to donors but not ask for money. The justices questioned whether the notion that the law prevented corruption and coercion on part of the donors because the judges were allowed to communicate with donors after the transaction.

“Now why was there any greater damage done by what she did as opposed to what you admit she could have done?” Justice Samuel Alito asked Richards about Williams-Yulee’s letter.

What do you think?

Should judicial candidates be barred from personally seeking campaign donations? Should the same election laws that apply to politicians be applied to judicial candidates or should the rules be different? Does the Florida law violate the First Amendment? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!

Update April 29, 2015: The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Florida law does not violate the First Amendment. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion: “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot.” He added that “state’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office.”
Join the Discussion
limited to 2000 characters including spaces  

Thank you for commenting.
Your comment is awaiting approval.
Click here to view all Speak Outs
Judge candidates shouldn't be allowed to personally seek campaign donations because this can easily become bribery and a way for a candidate to sell their policies. This should be the same for the presidential candidates so everything stays neutral. Candidates should make their own connections and find their own funding based on parties or organizations that share their beliefs, but shouldn't ask personally for donations. Florida law is not violating the First Amendment, but to keep neutrality between candidates there should be no personal asking of donations.

Judge candidates really should not be barred from seeking campaign donations because with their campaign donations that they describe most rather than all go to their campaign and afterwards the candidates can thank their donors. The real downside to this is the fact when one of the two court cases preferably speaking the Citizens United v. FEC limited the rules of individuals contributions and are preventing corporations from donating to political groups. The judges should accept the money however people may find this to be some sort of a bribe, maybe there were some disclosed arrangement of an agreement that was made.

Just like with a Presidential election I believe that Judicial candidates should be allowed to seek campaign donations. After all it is a campaign, and they can thank the people personally that donated to the candidates. When it comes to politicians and judicial candidates, the same election process should be applied, limiting contributions. The Florida law does violate the First Amendment due to the fact that all that the Judicial candidates are trying to do is just ask for help, instead of demanding. It’s simply ridiculous that the state election commission fined Williams-Yulee for “breaking” the election law, when all she was doing is just sending letters to potential donors to help her with her campaigning.

No i do not believe that candidates being barred by personally seeking campaign donations because it is a campaign, just like a president's and if they personally thank the people that donate to them; they should be allowed to ask for money.The rules should not be different because of the campaign, and all campaign races are the same. Yes it is violating the First Amendment right because them just asking for help, is ban.

The claim that the sending of a thank-you card to a donor is a form of corruption is preposterous. Comparing such cards to the action of asking donors for money is equally as ridiculous. If a judge in your county asks you for money to finance his campaign, you are going to give him that money because--who knows--that same judge could be presiding over your case some day. And even in the case of mass-mailings, which have been claimed to be innocent means of asking for funds, if that mailer is a signed and apparently personalized letter (even if it is in fact mass material), the recipients of said letter may not know it was not sent specifically to them for one reason or another and may feel pressured to respond with a donation. Additionally, if the ability to ask for campaign funds is on the table, judges may feel obligated to rule against their better judgments in certain cases so as to win the public over and persuade them to donate funds. The law that was struck down in Florida, while it did violate the first amendment right to freedom of expression through allocation of funds, was a good and necessary law which, though imperfect, was a step in the right direction.

No I do not believe that candidates should be barred from personally seeking campaign donations because it's a campaign, just like a president's, and if the candidates can personally thank the people that donate to them, they should be able to ask for money from them. The rules should be no different because it is a campaign, and all campaigns are alike. Yes it does violate the First Amendment right because it bans them from just asking for help.

Judges should not be allowed to personally seek campaign donations, because it is unprofessional and runs the risk of bribery taking place. Earning donations can be done simply by assigned committees, but thank you cards should be given out by the committee and not the candidate. There is no violation of political speech for candidates by making sure they keep they stay neutral and not personally asking for bribes.

I don't think that judicial candidates should be barred from personally seeking campaign donations, as long as they're motives aren't dishonest. Also, barring them from asking would violate their protection of free speech. Judicial candidates and politicians should adhere to the same election rules because both are seeking a great deal of power in the US government. I think that the Florida Law violates the First Amendment because it tries to limit people from their freedom of speech, and simply asking for donations instead of demanding them isn't unconstitutional.

Judicial candidates should not be barred from personally seeking campaign donations because they are merely acting with the protection of the freedom of speech working into their favor. If a candidate is simply asking for donations they are not bribing or becoming connected to a single person or company they are simply trying to fund their campaign. I believe that the same election laws should be applied to politicians and judicial candidates because although these two positions hold much different kinds of power they both are greatly important to the governmental system. If one is allowed to ask for donations the other should have the same chances to increase the possibility of representing their state, city, or county no matter what branch they come from. The Florida law does violate the First Amendment because Lanell Williams-Yulee did not try and bribe her prospective contributors she merely asked them if they would like to donate to her campaign. The Florida law is basically trying to limit her from speaking on her own behalf to possible supporters and are trying to protect this unconstitutional act by stating that she is in the wrong rather than themselves.

I believe that judicial candidates should not be barred from personally seeking campaign donations. The reason why I do not think the judicial candidates should not be prevented from doing this is because it violates the First Amendment. The First Amendment is about having freedom of religion, petition, press, assembly, and most importantly for this situation, the freedom of speech. If the state law bans judges from asking for campaign donations, then it is violating the Constitution because the candidates have the right to “ask” for donations, they are not bargaining, asking is part of their speech. The Florida law violated the Constitution since the state election commission fined and reprimanded Lanell Williams-Yulee for sending letters to potential donors asking for contributions, which is legal since it is the freedom of speech. When it comes to politicians and judicial candidates, I believe that the same election laws should be applied, limiting individual contributions and preventing corporations from donating should be considered unconstitutional in both cases.

To make a valuable statement on this topic, we must clarify the differences between "donations" and "bribes." If there is an individual asking for people to donate heaps of money and luring those people with something in return/a highly anticipated or supported statement, I consider that bribery. According to the internet, the definition of bribery is "persuading (someone) to act in one's favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement." Because Lannell Williams-Yulee did not persuade anyone to do anything, I believe that she did not, at all, deserve the fining nor did she deserve the reprimanding. Now, alternating my focus to the form of the question, "Is a state law banning judges from asking for campaign donations unconstitutional," I immediately notice the very specific word "asking." Let's define that word, shall we? To ask, according to the internet, is to request--not bribe. So, to answer this question, no, I do not find judges asking for campaign donations an unconstitutional act.

murrieta CA
Steven G
Because it is such a diverse and touchy subject its hard to draw a line between accepting what some might call donations and others may refer to as bribes. I think the judge should of been allowed to accept the money, but the problem with that is because it was asked for who is to say that their weren't certain agreements made between the two beforehand? I think because of the complexity between donations, and bribes, and such the thin line between the two, donations should not be allowed until a more accurate solution is found to prevent corruption in our justice system which has the power to incarcerate a individual a life, and even take his life.

Related News
Related Resources