Above the partisan fray

In a challenge to provisions in the Kentucky code of judicial conduct, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit (1) held unconstitutional bans on judicial candidates making speeches for or against a political organization or candidate, campaigning as a member of a political organization, and making misleading statements, but (2) upheld prohibitions on judges and judicial candidates making contributions to a political organization or candidate, publicly endorsing or opposing a candidate for public office, acting as a leader or holding office in a political organization, knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth making false statements during a campaign, and making pledges, promises, or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of judicial office in connection with cases, controversies, or issues that are likely to come before the court.  Winter v. Wolnitzek, Opinion (6th Circuit August 24, 2016).  (Thus, the Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the holding of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky discussed in a previous post.)

The 6th Circuit stated:

Regulating campaign speech is not easy.  It’s not supposed to be.  But treating elections for the courts just like elections for the political branches does not make sense either. Candidates for judicial office, if elected, are supposed to follow the rule of law — no matter current public opinion, no matter the views of the political branches, no matter the views of the parties that support them.  But candidates for the other offices are permitted to, indeed often expected to, listen to the views of their constituents and parties.  Navigating these cross-currents is no simple task . . . .

The Court distinguished the rules it was overturning on campaigning as a member of a party and making speeches on behalf of a party from the rules it was upholding because the former denied judicial candidates the means of effectively running their own campaigns while the latter kept “judges above the partisan fray of trading political favors” and prevented “the appearance that judicial candidates are no different from other elected officials when it comes to quid pro quo politics.”  It explained “[t]here is a distinction between speech-limiting regulations that limit all judges (elected or not) and those that hamstring judges in their efforts to run for election.”  The Court noted that “a state ‘cannot have it both ways.  If it wants to elect its judges, it cannot deprive its citizens of a full and robust election debate,” but concluded, “there is no having-it-both-ways problem with a contributions limit like this one,” for example.

A contribution to a political organization or a candidate in a different campaign “is less a judge’s communication about his qualifications and beliefs than an effort to affect a separate political campaign, or even more problematically, assume a role as political powerbroker.” . . .  While “[j]udicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns,” . . . they do not have an unlimited right to contribute money to someone else’s campaign. . . .

Financial contributions, we realize, amount to speech. . . .  But the alignment between speech and money makes a difference only with respect to Janus-faced regulations that tell judicial candidates to run for office but deny them the tools for doing so.  That is not what this regulation does.  A contribution of time, money, or reputation to a political organization or a candidate in a separate election, whether judicial or not, differs in kind and degree from a judicial candidate contributing the same to his own campaign.  There is “a dividing line between” the speeches clause, “which impermissibly bars protected speech about the judge’s own campaign,” and the contributions clause, “which addresses a judge’s entry into the political arena on behalf of his partisan comrades.”

Upholding the prohibition on false statements, the Court noted that it had recently invalidated an Ohio ban on false statements that covered all non-judicial candidates for political office, but stated that the Ohio law was broader than the Kentucky rule and emphasized that Kentucky’s interest in preserving public confidence in the honesty and integrity of its judiciary is narrower and “more compelling than Ohio’s purported interest in protecting voters in other elected races from misinformation.”

However much or however little truth-bending the public has come to expect from candidates for political jobs, “[j]udges are not politicians,” and a “State’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office.” . . .  Kentucky has a “vital state interest” in safeguarding the public’s confidence in the honesty of its judiciary, . . . and the State’s ban on materially false statements by judicial candidates survives strict scrutiny — at least facially.

But the Court concluded that a ban on misleading statements “adds little to the permissible ban on false statements, and what it adds cannot be squared with the First Amendment.”  The Court is the sixth court to declare a prohibition on judicial candidates’ making misleading statements unconstitutionally vague and broad.  See also Butler v. Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, 802 So. 2d 207 (Alabama 2001); Weaver v. Bonner, 309 F.3d 1312 (11th Circuit 2002) (provision in Georgia code); In re Chmura, 608 N.W.2d 31 (Michigan 2000); In re Judicial Campaign Complaint Against O’Toole, 24 N.E.3d 1114 (Ohio 2014); O’Toole v. O’Connor, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109923 (U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio 2016).

There is a document summarizing all caselaw since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White on the Center for Judicial Ethics web-site at www.ncsc.org/cje.

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