Clean hands for elected judges

A Supreme Court ruling upholds a ban on judicial candidate asking directly for campaign donations in state elections. While such a ban restricts free speech, the constitutional need is for judges to remain principled and impartial.

AP Photo
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, center, greets supporters April 7 in Madison, Wis., after winning her election for her third-term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a candidate running to be elected as a judge cannot directly solicit campaign donations. The ruling specifically upholds such a ban in Florida, but it should help boost the integrity of courts around the nation.

Writing for a 5-to-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that such a restriction helps states with elected judges assure citizens that judges “will apply the law without fear or favor – and without having personally asked anyone for money.”

“When the judicial candidate himself asks for money, the stakes are higher for all involved,” the chief justice stated.

The ruling is widely seen as the high court not applying the same standard of free speech to judicial candidates as it does for candidates for other elective offices. Yet the courts hold a special place in a republic. Their main responsibility is to a constitution.

Judges wear robes and sit up high in a courtroom for a reason. These are the symbols of a unique respect for a branch of government that must be grounded in supreme principles, not political or personal calculations. An independent judiciary rests on an understanding that intangible concepts such as truth, justice, and fairness can be made a reality in human society.

Judges should not even be seen as tainted by money. As a previous Supreme Court decision stated, “justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.”

People who go before a court will more readily accept losing a case if they perceive a judge is acting impartially on the facts and within the law. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton said that the judiciary must operate with “neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment.”

The honesty of a judge holds a special power in a society ruled by law as much as through elections. That honesty must be insulated from the influence of money or other personal considerations.

Nearly 40 states have some type of election for judicial seats, and most already bar candidates from asking for money. The high court’s ruling will now help ensure that the other states will not have judges with any backward-looking gratitude for campaign donors. The third branch of government must be first in integrity.

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