The recently retired Justice O’Connor recently spoke at Hunter College with Justice Breyer, and was asked by a student if there was a vote she regretted casting. After rejecting the student’s suggestion that she choose Bush v. Gore, O’Connor named a case in involving judicial campaigns. She didn’t mention it by name, but I assume she meant Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, which struck down a prohibition on judges announcing views about “disputed legal or political issues.” (“Good,” quipped Breyer, “I dissented in that case.”) Dorothy Samuels notes that she has also spoken out recently about campaign donations to judges and their potentially corrupting influence.
I don’t think that the First Amendment should be construed to prevent the reasonable regulation of donations in judicial elections. Despite attempts by a lot of conservatives to portray campaign finance as an easy First Amendment issue, it’s actually complex. Donating or spending money isn’t pure speech but a means to make speech more widespread. This remains a core First Amendment value, of course, but in the context of elections it also conflicts with the crucial democratic assumption that individuals with unequal resources should still be civic equals at election time. And the problem of donations is even more acute with judicial elections: legislators aren’t supposed to be impartial in crafting legislation, but one would think that judges are supposed to be impartial in enforcing it. Other liberal democracies with a commitment to free speech have managed to regulate campaign donations and spending without heading down the slippery slope to crushing political dissent.
White, which was a pure speech case, is a lot trickier; I would probably reluctantly join the court’s opinion. And the case does bring up a broader question; if judges aren’t allowed to state their views, why have elections at all? O’Connor actually identified the problem in her concurrence:
Minnesota has chosen to select its judges through contested popular elections instead of through an appointment system or a combined appointment and retention election system along the lines of the Missouri Plan. In doing so the State has voluntarily taken on the risks to judicial bias described above. As a result, the State’s claim that it needs to significantly restrict judges’ speech in order to protect judicial impartiality is particularly troubling. If the State has a problem with judicial impartiality, it is largely one the State brought upon itself by continuing the practice of popularly electing judges.
I sometimes find it hard to fault the Supreme Court for requiring states to push the idea of electing judges further down its logical path.