Finally, the Supreme Court Wakes Up About $ in Politics

April 30, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, April 29, finally woke up to the corrupting role that money can play in our electoral system.

In the case of Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, the Court ruled that the state of Florida was within its rights to prohibit candidates for judicial offices from soliciting campaign funds. The state, it ruled, has a “compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”

That compelling interest trumped the First Amendment claims of Lanell Williams-Yulee, who had run for county judge in 2009.

The vote on the Court was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the four liberal justices and writing the decision. (The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign signed on to an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to rule against Williams-Yulee and to affirm the right of states to prohibit judicial candidates from asking for campaign contributions.)

The justices were at pains to try to draw a distinction between judicial races and legislative or executive ones, but the logic of the decision lends momentum to the movement to rid our political system of the overwhelmingly corrupting influence of private campaign financing.

Just as there is a “compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary,” there ought to be a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the legislature and the executive branch.

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that this “compelling interest,” when narrowly tailored, did not violate the First Amendment. This same claim ought to be applied in races for non-judicial offices.

The majority opinion noted that the State has an interest “in preventing the appearance of corruption in legislative and executive elections,” but that interest is even greater in judicial elections.

Still, the majority seemed to depart, at least in spirit, from the Citizens United decision of 2010. Back then, it seemed blissfully indifferent to the compelling interest in preserving public confidence and in preventing the appearance of corruption. In Citizens United, it blithely said that the independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” And it added, with no evidence whatsoever, that “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

Here, in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, the Court has come partially to its senses, recognizing that “public confidence in the integrity” of at least our judicial system can be easily rattled.

Chief Justice Roberts also threw a bouquet to campaign finance reformers when he all but invited states to come up with more ways to curb the corrupting influence of money. “We have never held that adopting contributions limits precludes a State from pursuing its compelling interests through additional means,” he said.

The dissents written by Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Anthony Kennedy were heated. But Kennedy did come out for more transparency and disclosure, even though he condemned the majority decision for limiting speech. Wrote Kennedy: “Disclosure requirements offer a powerful, speech-enhancing method of deterring corruption.”