Justices OKs limit on judicial fundraising

David G. Savage
Chicago Tribune

Washington – — The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld state laws that bar elected judges from asking for money to support their campaigns.

In a 5-4 decision, the court rejected a free-speech claim brought by a Florida judge. The ruling means that restrictions on soliciting campaign cash can remain in place in 30 states that elect state and local judges. In all, 39 states, including Michigan, hold elections for judges and some allow personal appeals for donations.

“Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “A state may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor — and without having personally asked anyone for money.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.

The decision marks one of the few times the high court has rejected a free-speech claim involving politics and campaigning. Roberts split from the court’s four conservative justices to uphold the Florida law.

In a sharp dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the Florida rule a “wildly disproportionate restriction upon speech” that should be struck down under the First Amendment.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine, called the ruling a surprise.

“This is a huge win for those who support reasonable limits on judicial elections. And getting Roberts on this side of the issue is surprising, welcome and momentous,” he said.

In the last decade, critics of judicial elections, including retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, have argued that the public’s confidence in judges is being undercut by big-money campaigns. Even worse, these critics say, is having judges personally solicit contributions from people and companies who may have cases before the courts.

Until Wednesday’s ruling, however, the Supreme Court had moved in the direction of allowing judges to campaign freely. In 2002, the justices struck down state bar rules that had prohibited elected judges from taking public stands on controversial issues.

Associated Press contributed.