Archive for the 'judicial elections' Category

The Ninth Circuit yesterday issued a decision on judicial campaign finance, Wolfson v. Concannon, controlled by and very much in the spirit of Williams-Yulee. Arizona may prohibit a judicial candidate from directly soliciting campaign contributions, and also from endorsing nonjudicial candidates and participating in their campaigns.  The Court found the State to have a compelling interest sufficient to cover all the prohibitions: “an interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the state’s sitting judges.”  After that, it was smooth sledding, courtesy of Williams-Yulee, and the Court batted away the plaintiff’s claims that the bans were both under-and over-inclusive, and that Arizona could have employed less restrictive means of satisfying its interest.

A concurrence by Judge Berzon adds a note of genuine interest to an otherwise predictable, workmanlike analysis.  She suggests that the prohibition on endorsements of and campaigning for other candidates was more correctly considered in relation to another interest, equally compelling, in the independence of the judiciary.  Williams-Yulee may well control the outcome on the question of personal fundraising, but “the bans on endorsements and campaigning for nonjudicial candidates and causes… are quite different.”  Supporting those bans is an interest in

society’s concern with maintaining both the appearance and the reality of a structurally independent judiciary, engaged in a decision-making process informed by legal, not political or broad, nonlegal policy considerations.
Berzon writes that prohibiting alliances between judicial and other candidates protects against “politicization” of the judiciary.  Her concern is not the risk of bias in particular decisions but instead preserving a “structurally independent judiciary. “

There are two problems, one closely related to the other, with Rick Hasen’s Supreme Court-centered analysis of how the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s have fallen on hard times. The first, discussed here, is that the Court cannot bear all of the blame. The law ran into difficulties from the beginning, and it is primarily in recent years, when problems with the law had become evident, that the Court majority has given the Watergate-era statute a hard push toward collapse. It may well be that Justices hostile to the law in principle were pleased to be presented with the opportunity to pick it apart. But there was ample opportunity.

But now, having assigned so much fault to the Court, Rick is virtually required to build a reform program around changing its composition.  Progressives have a 5-4 problem now, and all it would take to solve it is one more vote. He states his point like this:

It likely will take a progressive Supreme Court reversing Citizens United and Buckley to provide the opportunity to enact comprehensive campaign reform and then to see the effects of more than a half-hearted reform upon governance.
Election Law’s Path in the Roberts Court’s First Decade: A Sharp Right Turn But with Speed Bumps and Surprising Twists (August 4, 2015). UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2015-70. Available at SSRN:, at 27.

Is this a viable or promising reform strategy?  Recent experience suggests it is not.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear argument on the challenged ban on personal fundraising by judicial candidates, writers arguing for the preservation of this prohibition continue to make their case. Kate Berry of the Brennan Center replies to a posting here and disagrees with the proposition that it is hard to see a major benefit from a restriction on speech described as “modest.” Garrett Epps shares her position that the prohibition should be upheld. In each case, the writers maintain that if we have to have judicial elections, they should be subject to special rules to safeguard public confidence in an independent judiciary and that this is one such rule.

What is offered in support of this position?

The Supreme Court will decide soon whether states can bar judicial candidates from directly and personally soliciting contributions to their campaigns. The stakes are high; the stakes are also low.