If there is one thing that the Roberts Court seems consistently willing to protect, it’s speech – even controversial or unpopular speech like violent video games, protests at the funeral of a fallen soldier, lies about receiving military medals, and dog-fighting videos. And for the Court’s five more conservative Justices, this enthusiasm for the First Amendment extends to the campaign-finance arena. In recent years, a closely divided Court has struck down a ban on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions as well as the overall caps on how much one person can contribute to campaigns for federal office. But yesterday’s oral argument in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, a Tampa lawyer’s challenge to a Florida rule that prohibited her from personally contacting would-be donors to ask them to contribute to her campaign for a job as a trial judge, hinted that, when it comes to the First Amendment, judges might be different. After all, some Justices suggested, it would be undignified for judges – who, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, are supposed to be “above the fray” – to go around asking people for money.
Arguing on behalf of Lanell Williams-Yulee, attorney Andrew Pincus told the nine Justices that Florida had punished his client for sending out form letters asking for contributions that were “completely” legal in Florida. And if the Florida rule prohibiting personal solicitations by potential judges is really intended to protect the would-be donors from feeling coerced to contribute, Pincus argued, then at the very least there should be no ban for mass mailings like the one at issue in this case, which are so impersonal that they don’t place any pressure on the people who receive them. But Justice Anthony Kennedy countered that Pincus’s proposed rule would make it difficult for courts to draw a line between what is and is not allowed. There are “all sorts of gradations,” he told Pincus. What about a letter from a potential judge to one person? What about a letter to five people?
Other Justices, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, suggested that there was more to the rule than just preventing coercion – for example, an interest in judges being dignified. Scalia observed that “there’s stuff we don’t let judges do” – such as publish op-eds in newspapers to respond to criticisms of their decisions.
Pincus may have found more success with his argument that the overall scheme of the Florida rule doesn’t make sense. After all, for example, although would-be judges can’t contact potential donors to ask for money, they can send notes directly to donors to thank them for their contributions, and their campaign committees can reach out on their behalf. The additional step of banning personal solicitations by judges, he contended, doesn’t actually make any difference. Some of the Court’s more liberal Justices were skeptical, arguing that the extra personal touch does make a difference when you are asking for money. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that it’s “very, very, very rare” for a lawyer to turn her down when she makes a request. Getting a signed letter or personal phone call from a judge, she suggested, would be more likely to lead to a contribution than a letter signed by the judge’s campaign committee. Justice Stephen Breyer echoed these concerns, telling Pincus that his “instinct is” that when someone else writes the letter, it doesn’t have the same effect.
But that argument seemed to find more traction with some of the Court’s more conservative Justices. When Barry Richard, arguing on behalf of the Florida Bar, emphasized that the Florida rule was designed to cut the direct link between a would-be judge and donor that creates corruption when a donor expects to receive something for his contribution, Justice Scalia rejected that premise. Once you can send a thank-you note directly to a donor to thank him for the campaign contribution, Scalia insisted, that’s no longer true, because there is a direct link. And Justice Samuel Alito asked Richard (somewhat rhetorically) to explain what additional damage would result from Williams-Yulee’s direct contact with would-be donors, compared with having a campaign committee send out fundraising letters which specifically say that the judge gave the committee the donor’s name, that the committee will let the judge know if a contribution is made, and that the judge will then write a thank-you note.
Although some Justices expressed concerns that allowing judges to personally solicit campaign contributions would be undignified, those concerns were apparently not part of the Florida Bar’s justification for the rule. When Justice Scalia pressed Richard to confirm that “the dignity of the office . . . has nothing to do with Florida’s rule,” Richard agreed that he was “not relying on that” rationale. Given Scalia’s misgivings about the rule, and because it looks like the case could be a close one, it will be interesting to see whether that concession plays a role in the Court’s ultimate decision. A decision is expected by summer; we will be back to cover it in Plain English.