U.S. top court allows judicial campaign solicitations ban

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON, April 29 (Reuters) - States may bar judicial candidates from soliciting campaign contributions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a decision rejecting a Florida candidate's assertion that such limits violate the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals in a 5-4 decision that made it easier for states to regulate judicial elections.

The ruling follows Supreme Court decisions in recent years lifting other campaign finance restrictions, but it affects only judicial elections and is unlikely to have a broader impact.

As such, the ruling does not indicate the court is stepping away from its contentious 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. That 5-4 decision cited free speech as the grounds for dismantling restrictions on independent corporate and union expenditures in federal elections.

The court ruled on Wednesday against Lanell Williams-Yulee, who ran in 2009 for county court judge in Tampa. She objected when Florida's Supreme Court publicly reprimanded her for a mass-mail campaign fundraising letter asking for donations of up to $500.

She contended the ban on personally soliciting contributions, part of Florida's code of judicial conduct, violated her free speech rights under the Constitution's First Amendment. The Florida regulation does allow candidates to set up committees that can solicit contributions on their behalf.

Williams-Yulee ultimately lost the election and says she did not receive any donations.

"Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot," Roberts wrote on behalf of the court, adding that a "state's decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office."

States have an interest in assuring people that judges "will apply the law without fear or favor - and without having personally asked anyone for money," Roberts added.

His opinion drew condemnation from his fellow conservatives, including Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the Citizens United decision.

"It is not within our nation's First Amendment tradition to abridge speech simply because the government believes a question is too difficult or profound for voters," Kennedy wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Election law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law said the ruling was limited to the judicial elections context but could give campaign finance reform advocates "lots of hope" in the push for more restrictions on judicial candidates.

Thirty-nine of the 50 U.S. states hold judicial elections.

The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1499. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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