Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar
575 US ___ (2015)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Florida voters elect judges. The Florida Supreme Court adopted Canon 7C(1) of its Code of Judicial Conduct, stating that judicial candidates “shall not personally solicit campaign funds . . . but may establish committees of responsible persons” to raise money for election campaigns. Yulee mailed and posted online a letter soliciting financial contributions to her campaign for judicial office. The Florida Bar disciplined her for violating a Bar Rule requiring candidates to comply with Canon 7C(1). The Florida Supreme Court upheld the sanction against a First Amendment challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. Florida’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary is compelling.. Unlike the legislature or the executive, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse,” so its authority largely depends on the public’s willingness to respect its decisions. Canon 7C(1) raises no fatal underinclusivity concerns. The solicitation ban aims squarely at the conduct most likely to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary: it is not riddled with exceptions. Allowing a candidate to use a committee and to write thank you notes reflect Florida’s effort to respect the First Amendment interests of candidates and contributors. Canon 7C(1) is not overinclusive It allows judicial candidates to discuss any issue with any person at any time; to write letters, give speeches, and put up billboards; to contact potential supporters in person, on the phone, or online; and to promote their campaigns through the media. Though they cannot ask for money, they can direct their campaign committees to do so. Florida has reasonably determined that personal appeals for money by a judicial candidate inherently create an appearance of impropriety. Canon 7C(1) must be narrowly tailored, not “perfectly tailored” to address that concern.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

WILLIAMS-YULEE v. FLORIDA BAR

certiorari to the supreme court of florida

No. 13–1499. Argued January 20, 2015—Decided April 29, 2015

Florida is one of 39 States where voters elect judges at the polls. To promote public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary, the Florida Supreme Court adopted Canon 7C(1) of its Code of Judicial Conduct, which provides that judicial candidates “shall not personally solicit campaign funds . . . but may establish committees of responsible persons” to raise money for election campaigns.

Petitioner Lanell Williams-Yulee (Yulee) mailed and posted online a letter soliciting financial contributions to her campaign for judicial office. The Florida Bar disciplined her for violating a Florida Bar Rule requiring candidates to comply with Canon 7C(1), but Yulee contended that the First Amendment protects a judicial candidate’s right to personally solicit campaign funds in an election. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the disciplinary sanctions, concluding that Canon 7C(1) is narrowly tailored to serve the State’s compelling interest.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

138 So. 3d 379, affirmed.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II, concluding that the First Amendment permits Canon 7C(1)’s ban on the personal solicitation of campaign funds by judicial candidates. Pp. 8–22.

(a)  Florida’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary is compelling. The State may conclude that judges, charged with exercising strict neutrality and independence, cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity. Simply put, the public may lack confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice without fear or favor if he comes to office by asking for favors. This Court’s precedents have recognized the “vital state interest” in safeguarding “ ‘public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the nation’s elected judges,’ ” Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U. S. 868 . Unlike the legislature or the executive, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse,” Federalist No. 78, p. 465 (A. Hamilton), so its authority depends in large measure on the public’s willingness to respect and follow its decisions. Public perception of judicial integrity is accordingly “ ‘a state interest of the highest order.’ ” 556 U. S., at 889.

A State’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary extends beyond its interest in preventing the appearance of corruption in legislative and executive elections, because a judge’s role differs from that of a politician. Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U. S. 765 . Unlike a politician, who is expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of supporters, a judge in deciding cases may not follow the preferences of his supporters or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. As in White, therefore, precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.

The vast majority of elected judges in States allowing personal solicitation serve with fairness and honor, but in the eyes of the public, a judicial candidate’s personal solicitation could result (even unknowingly) in “a possible temptation . . . which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear and true.” Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U. S. 510 . That risk is especially pronounced where most donors are lawyers and litigants who may appear before the judge they are supporting. In short, it is the regrettable but unavoidable appearance that judges who personally ask for money may diminish their integrity that prompted the Supreme Court of Florida and most other States to sever the direct link between judicial candidates and campaign contributors. Pp. 9–12.

(b) Canon 7C(1) raises no fatal underinclusivity concerns. The solicitation ban aims squarely at the conduct most likely to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary: personal requests for money by judges and judicial candidates. The Canon applies evenhandedly to all judges and judicial candidates, regardless of viewpoint or means of solicitation. And unlike some laws that have been found impermissibly underinclusive, Canon 7C(1) is not riddled with exceptions.

Yulee relies heavily on the provision of Canon 7C(1) that allows solicitation by a candidate’s campaign committee. But Florida, along with most other States, has reasonably concluded that solicitation by the candidate personally creates a categorically different and more severe risk of undermining public confidence than does solicitation by a campaign committee. When the judicial candidate himself asks for money, the stakes are higher for all involved. A judicial candidate asking for money places his name and reputation behind the request, and the solicited individual knows that the same person who signed the fundraising letter might one day sign the judgment. This dynamic inevitably creates pressure for the recipient to comply, in a way that solicitation by a third party does not. Just as inevitably, the personal involvement of the candidate in the solicitation creates the public appearance that the candidate will remember who says yes, and who says no. However similar the two solicitations may be in substance, a State may conclude that they present markedly different appearances to the public.

Permitting a judicial candidate to write thank you notes to campaign donors likewise does not detract from the State’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary. The State’s compelling interest is implicated most directly by the candidate’s personal solicitation itself. A failure to ban thank you notes for contributions not solicited by the candidate does not undercut the Bar’s rationale.

In addition, the State has a good reason for allowing candidates to write thank you notes and raise money through committees. These accommodations reflect Florida’s effort to respect the First Amendment interests of candidates and their contributors—to resolve the “fundamental tension between the ideal character of the judicial office and the real world of electoral politics.” Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U. S. 380 . The State should not be punished for leaving open more, rather than fewer, avenues of expression, especially when there is no indication of a pretextual motive for the selective restriction of speech. Pp. 12–16.

(c) Canon 7C(1) is also not overinclusive. By any measure, it restricts a narrow slice of speech. It leaves judicial candidates free to discuss any issue with any person at any time; to write letters, give speeches, and put up billboards; to contact potential supporters in person, on the phone, or online; and to promote their campaigns through the media. Though they cannot ask for money, they can direct their campaign committees to do so.

Yulee concedes that Canon 7C(1) is valid in numerous applications, but she contends that the Canon cannot constitutionally be applied to her chosen form of solicitation: a letter posted online and distributed via mass mailing. This argument misperceives the breadth of the compelling interest underlying Canon 7C(1). Florida has reasonably determined that personal appeals for money by a judicial candidate inherently create an appearance of impropriety that may cause the public to lose confidence in the integrity of the judiciary. That interest may be implicated to varying degrees in particular contexts, but the interest remains whenever the public perceives the judge person-ally asking for money. Canon 7C(1) must be narrowly tailored, not “perfectly tailored.” Burson v. Freeman, 504 U. S. 191 . The First Amendment does not confine a State to addressing evils in their most acute form. Here, Florida has concluded that all personal solicitations by judicial candidates create a public appearance that undermines confidence in the integrity of the judiciary; banning all personal solicitations by judicial candidates is narrowly tailored to address that concern.

Yulee errs in contending that Florida can accomplish its compelling interest through recusal rules and campaign contribution limits. A rule requiring recusal in every case in which a lawyer or litigant made a campaign contribution would disable many jurisdictions, and a flood of postelection recusal motions could exacerbate the very appearance problem the State is trying to solve. As for contribution limits, Florida already applies them to judicial elections, and this Court has never held that adopting such limits precludes a State from pursuing its compelling interests through additional means.

The desirability of judicial elections is a question that has sparked disagreement for more than 200 years, but it is not the Court’s place to resolve that enduring debate. The Court’s limited task is to apply the Constitution to the question presented in this case. Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict. A State’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity. Pp. 16–22.

Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II. Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and Ginsburg, J., joined except as to Part II. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Breyer, J., joined as to Part II. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined. Kennedy, J., and Alito, J., filed dissenting opinions.

Primary Holding

A state may prohibit judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign funds without violating the First Amendment, since the state has a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary, and this rule is sufficiently narrowly tailored to that interest.

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