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SCOTUS to Hear Judicial Campaign Funds Case

(CN) - The Supreme Court said Thursday it will hear an appeal from a Florida judicial candidate who says the state's ban on the solicitation on campaign funds by prospective judges violates her First Amendment right of free speech.

Lanell Williams-Yulee signed a mass-mail fundraising letter in 2009 announcing her candidacy for county court judge in Hillsborough County, Fla. and seeking donations for her campaign. The Florida Bar reprimanded her for her actions, saying she violated the state's code of judicial conduct.

In May 2014, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the prohibition on fundraising, holding that such conduct might cause the public to question a judge's impartiality.

In seeking review from the U.S. Supreme Court, Williams-Yulee argued that the law has a chilling effect on political speech.

She also maintains the prohibition is largely irrelevant because while judicial candidates in Florida are denied the ability to directly raise funds for themselves, there's nothing in Florida law that prevents a candidate's campaign committee from doing so.

"It is the general practice of electing judges, not the specific practice of judicial campaigning, that gives rise to impartiality concerns," her brief says.

Williams-Yulee also argues the personal solicitation ban favors "incumbent judges (who benefit from their current status) over non-judicial candidates, the well-to-do (who may not need to raise money at all) over lower-income candidates, and the well-connected (who have an army of potential fundraisers) over outsiders."

The Florida Bar also urged the high court to accept the case, "not only because there is a national need for resolution, but because of the particularly troublesome position in which it places the Florida Bar."

Thirty-nine states have public elections for judges, and of those, 30 have laws that bar candidates from personally soliciting campaign funds.

To date, four federal appeals courts, including the 11th Circuit, have held that statutes similar to Florida's are unconstitutional, while two others, the 3rd and 7th Circuits, have upheld such regulations, as have the Arkansas and Oregon Supreme Courts.

"The existing indirect conflict between the decision of the Florida Supreme Court and the decision of the Eleventh Circuit in Weaver v. Bonner ... a case involving a Georgia judicial candidate, is likely to become a direct conflict when the Eleventh Circuit is inevitably called upon to adjudicate the constitutionality of canon 7C(1) in a case involving a Florida judicial candidate," the Bar said in its brief.

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