Ron Fein: When Judges Pass The Collection Plate, Justice Suffers

In his latest op-ed, Free Speech For People’s legal director, Ron Fein digs in on Justice Scalia, campaign finance, the Williams-Yulee case, and what it all means in the big scheme of preserving judicial dignity. The aptly titled piece,”When Judges Pass the Collection Plate, Justice Suffers” is featured today on The Daily Caller.

An excerpt is featured below:

“At the Supreme Court, the Yale instructor representing Ms. Williams-Yulee spoke first, and he spoke well. Answering a question from the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he allowed that Florida might have three reasons for ethics rules against judges soliciting money: it could lead to bribery; it could lead to judges who are biased in favor of current or potential campaign contributors; and, when a judge asks for something, it’s hard to say no.

These are all good reasons. And at this point, you can imagine, he was ready to give his best counterarguments against all those reasons.

But his battle plan didn’t survive contact with Justice Scalia. Before the Yale lawyer could say another word, Justice Scalia interrupted: “What about the interest in judicial dignity?”

That threw the lawyer a curve. The state’s legal brief hadn’t said anything about judicial dignity; that argument appeared only in a friend-of-the-court brief. But it’s a smart question. Justice Scalia was asking whether a state can prohibit judges asking for money because the very act of asking diminishes respect for the judiciary. We like to think of judges as wise, fair, and a bit removed — not hustling for donations like a street performer who passes around a hat after the show.

In Justice Scalia’s words, “there’s stuff we don’t let judges do that we let other people do.” Because, for a judge, “there are certain things that are infra dignitatem” — Latin for “beneath dignity.” That’s why states like Florida insist that judicial candidates must, while campaigning, “maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office.”

The lawyer hemmed and hawed, but Justice Scalia’s point was made. In a way, Justice Scalia was evoking an earlier time, when the judge was the most respected figure in town, known for wisdom, judiciousness, and, well, dignity. In some parts of America, that ideal might endure. But big-money judicial races, in which judges must dial for dollars like Chicago aldermen, are breaking down the values of judicial respect that Americans have held dear. As one Ohio Supreme Court justice admitted of the fundraising circus, “I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station … as I did in a judicial race.”

This isn’t a free speech issue; it’s an issue of fostering respect for the rule of law. Preserving the dignity of the judiciary is important, and it’s threatened by the spectacle of a sitting or aspiring judge hustling for donations like a Brooklyn machine politician. That’s why Justice Scalia compared a judge soliciting contributions to a “mendicant” who was “holding [his] hat out asking people for money.”

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