(CN) – Judges and judicial candidates in Wisconsin can announce their political party membership, but cannot endorse partisan candidates or personally solicit campaign donations, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Siefert sued the Wisconsin Judiciary Commission over three portions of the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct, which he claimed stifled his free speech.
Siefert said he was prevented from announcing his membership in the Democratic Party or endorsing Barack Obama’s presidential bid and Jim Doyle’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He was also blocked from soliciting donations for his 2011 campaign by making phone calls, signing fundraising letters and personally inviting potential donors to fundraising events.
The commission claimed the rules were necessary to preserve judicial impartiality and the appearance of impartiality.
But U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin found the restrictions unconstitutional and barred the commission from enforcing them.
The 7th Circuit upheld Crabb’s decision, except as it applied to political party identification.
“The state does not have a compelling interest in preventing candidates from announcing their views on legal or political issues, let alone prohibiting them from announcing those views by proxy,” Judge John Tinder wrote.
However, the Chicago-based appellate panel said the state has valid interests in barring judges and judicial candidates from endorsing partisan candidates or personally soliciting campaign contributions, as those bans protect the public from potential judicial bias and corruption.
“When judges are speaking as judges, and trading on the prestige of their office to advance other political ends, a state has an obligation to regulate their behavior,” Tinder wrote.
In a partial dissent, Judge Ilana Rovner attacked the decision to ban political endorsements. She said Wisconsin’s acceptance of nonpartisan endorsements undercuts the ban on partisan endorsements, rendering it unconstitutional.
“Once Wisconsin greased the slope for nonpartisan endorsements,” she wrote, “it should not have been surprised that partisan endorsements could come sliding after.”