Scott Greytak on Williams-Yulee Anniversary: “Your Right to a Fair Trial, On Trial”

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, in which a Florida woman running for county judge asked for campaign donations through an online posting. In Florida, candidates for judge are prohibited from soliciting donations, but the woman filed a lawsuit challenging the law and argued it violated her First Amendment right to free speech.

Our counsel, Scott Greytak discusses this case and what’s on the horizon for judicial elections in an op-ed posted today in U.S. News & World Report.

One year ago today, the most senior judge in the country, Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court, uttered an extraordinarily obvious statement. “Judges are not politicians,” he announced in the case Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, “even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot.”

To most Americans, the chief justice’s words were, and still are, no-brainers. Gavels, black robes, low-lit chambers lined with law books, these make not the things of common politics. Judges aren’t politicians, in many ways, and for many good reasons.

Yet in three-quarters of the United States, this statement made news. State court judges – the kind of judges that hear everything from divorce cases to death penalty appeals – do run for office and do appear on the ballot in 38 states. Still, this very American practice (only Bolivia and Japan follow suit) didn’t really matter much. Until recently.

A year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Williams-Yulee, there are new opportunities to protect the courts from the  influence and agendas of campaign donors to judicial elections.

Opportunities to build upon these back-to-back victories are on the horizon. An eerily similar case substituting a tobacco giant for Blankenship has been offered up to the Supreme Court, should it choose to hear it. Behind it, a case involving trial attorneys who gave 72 times the maximum campaign contribution allowed by law to a Louisiana super PAC may make its way to the court.

Most importantly, these recent wins are fueling big, new ideas for reforming judicial elections: Only a year removed from Williams-Yulee, prominent academics have coalesced around the belief that noncandidate spending (e.g., spending by super PACs) above a certain amount should be banned, new research on the impact of money on judicial decisions is being pursued by academics and assertive state-based advocacy groups, sick of the outrageous amounts of money that jeopardize the independence of their courts, are backing cutting-edge lawsuits that challenge big money’s dominance of judicial elections. In a system where common-sense statements make headlines, efforts to protect our right to a fair trial like these may be able to get us all ahead by turning back the clock to a time when judges really weren’t politicians, even when they came to the bench by way of the ballot.

Read the article in full, here.

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