Florida Campaign Solicitation Case heads to SCOTUS

The appeal of a Tampa lawyer, who was reprimanded by the Florida Bar for directly soliciting in-person judicial campaign contributions, will be heard by the nation’s highest court, with potentially wide-ranging implications on judicial elections throughout the country. The lawyer, who was campaigning in 2010 to become a judge in Florida’s 13th Circuit Court, contends that the Florida judicial election rule prohibiting solicitation is unconstitutional.

Specifically, Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-8.2 requires that any candidate for judicial office must abide by the governing rules found in the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct when campaigning to be elected. Canon 7C(1) of that code provides, in relevant part, that any candidate who runs “for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds.” While promoting her campaign via a website specifically designed to inform and persuade voters, the lawyer posted a letter personally asking her supporters to contribute funds electronically via PayPal or using traditional postage. Following an investigation, the Florida Bar accepted a referee’s recommendation that she be given a public reprimand, in addition to being ordered to pay a sum of $1,860.30 in recovery cost to the Florida Bar. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the Florida Bar’s decision.

The lawyer’s appeal contends that the First Amendment provides her with the free speech right to solicit citizens for campaign money. The Florida Bar contends that there is a compelling state interest in regulating such elections; for example, allowing candidates to directly solicit funds may affect the appearance of impartiality and public confidence in the judiciary, given the increased emphasis on supporters helping a candidate get elected. “According to the Florida Bar, two other state high courts and two federal circuit courts have upheld rules similar to Florida’s and three other federal circuit courts of appeal have ruled them unconstitutional.”

A Supreme Court ruling in the lawyer’s favor would be a landmark for First Amendment interpretation, and it would significantly alter how judicial elections work in America. Currently, thirty-nine other states elect judges. If the nation’s highest court reverses the Florida ruling, it would necessitate a review of the judicial election process in these states. The case is scheduled for later this term, and it certainly will be one to watch.

Read more here and here.

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