Podcast: Should elected judges be allowed to ask for donations?

One of the most interesting cases in the Supreme Court this term is about state-level judges who have to run for office, and their ability to raise campaign funds.

NevadaStateCapitolCourtRoomThe debate focuses on the First Amendment rights of these judges to personally ask for money to offset campaign costs, versus concerns that it’s improper for judges to directly ask for funds in any context.

Judges are elected in 39 states and in 30 of those states there is a law or an ethics provision that bans judicial candidates from personally asking for campaign donations.

The case of Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar involves Lanell Williams-Yulee, a candidate for county clerk judge in Florida. She personally signed a 2009 campaign fundraising letter, an act that the Florida Bar said violated the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the Florida Bar’s assessment that the mass mailing and website letter violated Canon 7C(1) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.

“The personal solicitation of campaign funds, even by mass mailing, raises an appearance of impropriety and calls into question, in the public’s mind, the judge’s impartiality,” the state court said.

Then Williams-Yulee’s attorneys asked the United States Supreme Court to settle what appeared to be a simple question: “Whether a rule of judicial conduct that prohibits candidates for judicial office from personally soliciting campaign funds violates the First Amendment.”

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides, and there are early indications that the Justices’ decision could be a close one.

Joining us to discuss the case are two of the leading experts on judicial and First Amendment matters in America.

Bob Corn-Revere is a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, D.C. He writes extensively on First Amendment and communications-related issues.  Bob wrote the amicus brief for the American Civil Liberties Union in the Williams-Yulee case. He also obtained the first posthumous pardon in New York history, for the late comedian Lenny Bruce in a landmark pro bono case.

Burt Neuborne is the Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties and founding Legal Director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. For 50 years, Burt has been one of the nation’s foremost civil liberties lawyers. He also submitted an amicus brief in this case as a past leader of the ACLU.

Our Jeffrey Rosen spoke with Corn-Revere and Neuborne about this fascinating topic; listen to the full podcast in the player below or at the following link: Download this episode (right click and save)

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