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Roberts Opinion on Williams-Yulee vs. Florida Bar a Clear, but Mixed-Message on Campaign Finance

— May 4, 2015


Chief Justice John Roberts at the 2014 State of the Union Address Photo Courtesy of Larry Downing / Pool / Getty
Chief Justice John Roberts at the 2014 State of the Union Address
Photo Courtesy of Larry Downing / Pool / Getty

In a surprising and pragmatic break from his usual stance regarding campaign financing, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the 4 Supreme Court liberals, ruling in favor of campaign limits for judicial candidates. Roberts, along with Justice Anthony Kennedy, cast the deciding precedent-setting votes in the 2010 Citizens United ruling that essentially blew the ceiling off of campaign funding. He drew a line, however, between politicians and judges in his April, 29th majority opinion in the case of Williams-Yulee vs. Florida Bar. The case involved a Florida candidate for judge who used mass mailings to solicit contributions, a practice banned by the state’s election laws. The candidate sued, arguing that the restriction was a violation of her right to free speech. The ruling also conforms to the current Court’s tendency to defer to existing state law. Justice Kennedy, who has often been a swing vote on controversial decisions, sided with Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, writing in his own dissenting opinion that prohibiting the fundraising was, “cutting off one candidate’s personal freedom to speak.”

In his opinion, Roberts clearly distinguished the differences between politicians and judges in the governmental system; writing, “A judge’s role differs from that of a politician. 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.” Currently, 30 of 39 states that have some form of judicial elections have established laws that bar personal solicitations for the sake of judicial impartiality. Roberts notes however, that the ruling only applies to a “narrow slice”  of state law, and that judicial candidates are “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.”

For some, Roberts’s opinion signals a mixed message on many levels. In his dissent, Justice Scalia noted a lack of consistency, writing that “The First Amendment is not abridged for the benefit of the Brotherhood of the Robe.” Scalia noted that the same Court “accorded robust protection to depictions of animal torture, sale of violent video games to children, and lies about having won military medals.” Justice Scalia, who is a strong defender of states’ rights, should take some degree of comfort in the fact that the decision upholds existing law in Florida, as well as the law of many other states. For advocates of campaign finance reform, the opinion is an encouraging and pragmatic break from rulings like Citizens United, that have led to nearly unfettered campaign funding. Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), calls the ruling a “great first step,” however noting the divergence of thought in the opinions of the two cases. Bookbinder continues, “To say that there can be strong restrictions in the context of judicial elections and virtually no restrictions and no requirements for other types of elections seem incongruous and not in the interest of voters and the American people.”


NPR – Peter Overbee

US News & World Report – Joseph P. Williams

Vox – Andrew Prokop



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