As more and more candidates announce their entrance into the 2016 presidential race, we’ll hear more and more about their platform and vision for the country—and about their donors and fundraisers. 2016 will be the first presidential election since McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Court struck down a longstanding ban on aggregate limits on donations directly to candidates’ campaigns and political parties. So, it’s possible an even bigger shift in the realm of money and politics is expected in an election six years after Citizens United.
The Supreme Court recently decided another case with major implications for campaign finance reform: Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar. In a 5-4 opinion, the Court upheld a Florida law that prohibits judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. The petitioner, Lanell Williams-Yulee, sent a signed letter seeking campaign contributions in her 2009 race for Hillsborough County Judge. The trial court found Williams-Yulee in violation of a state law stating that a candidate “for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds.”
Williams-Yulee challenged the ruling, arguing that the law violated her constitutional right to free speech. The Florida Supreme Court, however, held that the law is constitutional, for it “promotes the State’s compelling interests in preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary, and that it is narrowly tailored to effectuate those interests.”
This case raises the question of how we should strike the balance between constitutionally protected free speech and the state’s compelling interest to ensure public confidence in the judicial system. If this type of question sounds familiar, that’s because it is: the right to free speech was central to major campaign finance cases Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC. Yet, as the Court found in Williams-Yulee, we must balance that right with the need to maintain public confidence in our systems of government.
So what, exactly, does Williams-Yulee have to do with campaign finance reform? Judicial elections certainly differ from elections with political or partisan candidates. Unlike candidates, judges are not elected to represent their own views, or even the will of the people. Instead, it is a judge’s responsibility to interpret laws passed by those elected officials, in the interest of upholding the Constitution and the principle of justice. This difference is key for Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote for the opinion of the court that in a judicial election, personal solicitation “creates the public appearance that the candidate will remember who says yes, and who says no.”
Yet, we know that this concern extends into races for elected office as well. Jewish tradition recognizes the distorting effect that money can have on a leader’s ability to govern fairly. Deuteronomy 16:19 teaches, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall know no partiality; you shall not take gifts, for gifts blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” Take action today; urge your Members of Congress to support a publicly funded election system, so that no gifts blind the eyes of those responsible for creating policy and upholding justice.