Almost all candidates for public office have one thing in common: They have to be very good at asking people for money. Except if they happen to be running for judge in Florida, where judicial candidates are prohibited from personally soliciting contributions. They can, however, have surrogates ask – and they are allowed to send personal thank-you notes to those who donate.
This charade may well be constitutional, which is the question that was debated at the Supreme Court Wednesday. But it is also absurd. Unlike legislators and executives, who are elected to advocate for a cause or constituency, judges are supposed to answer only to the law. Judicial elections endanger the impartiality of the courts and undermine public confidence in the justice system.
Wednesday’s case was brought by Lanell Williams-Yulee, a Florida judicial candidate who was reprimanded and fined by the state bar for sending out a mass mailing asking for money. Williams-Yulee argues that her First Amendment rights were trampled, and judicial candidates around the country are watching her case closely: Most of the 37 other states with judicial elections have adopted similar prohibitions on campaign solicitations.
The Supreme Court has taken a dim view of campaign finance restrictions that limit political activity. Five years ago Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting corporations from spending money intended to influence the outcome of an election.
It’s never wise to predict what the Supreme Court will do. But in this case it has two broad options: Strike down Florida’s ban on judicial solicitations as a violation of a candidate’s First Amendment rights, or uphold it as central to the integrity of the judicial system. Neither choice is ideal. But if the case serves only to expose the folly of judicial elections, the Supreme Court will have done the country a great service.