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At issue in Williams-Yulee is a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from personally requesting campaign contributions. Instead, a separate campaign committee must solicit and collect funds. Thirty states ban at least some forms of personal solicitation by judicial candidates, and 22 states, including Florida, have broad prohibitions.
There is good reason that most states restrict personal fundraising by judges. Lawyers and potential litigants are the most common donors to judicial campaigns. A personal request for contributions by the very judge or judicial candidate who may be deciding your case is not only coercive but raises concerns that justice could be for sale.
This is not an abstract worry. According to four former chief justices from Texas and Alabama — two states that permit personal solicitation — “our experience confirms there is a real risk that solicitation can morph into a demand.” In an amicus brief, the retired justices cited an incident in which a judge sent a personal email to a local lawyer soon after being elected, stating, “I trust that you will see your way clear to contribute to my campaign account in an amount reflective of the $2000 contribution you made towards my defeat.” The email further noted that “in very few realms does tardiness not incur an up-charge.”
In another incident, a judge emailed a small group of partners at a prominent law firm, detailing contributions made by other firms and noting that “all the Top 10 firms are committed to maxing out as a firm: $30,000 total.” The judge requested this firm “do the same,” explaining that “[a]t most of the firms, they are designating a senior partner … to bundle dozens of relatively small-$ contributions … until they reach the target,” and promising, “Bottomless thanks!”
These kinds of interactions threaten the public’s confidence in the basic fairness of our courts. The threat is particularly severe now, as judicial campaign spending has skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2000 and 2009, contributions in state supreme court races more than doubled as compared to the previous decade. Indeed, according to one recent poll, 95 percent of Americans believe that campaign contributions impact judicial decisions.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules – but particularly if it strikes down Florida’s direct solicitation ban – states must take steps to insulate judges from the growing flood of money in judicial elections. States should adopt strict recusal rules that bar judges from hearing cases when lawyers and litigants spend substantial sums to get them elected. Public financing of judicial elections is another vital reform, enabling judges to run competitive campaigns without the burdens of fundraising. These commonsense measures would help ensure public confidence in the integrity of our courts.