For casual news fans and avid U.S. Supreme Court junkies alike, the past week’s headlines have been dominated, not surprisingly, by stories about Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case. But there’s another story that emerged from the Court this week that deserves special attention in this forum: Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar Association. In that case — issued the day after oral argument in Obergefell — the Court once again waded into America’s longstanding but peculiar experiment with judicial elections.
For more than 150 years, the United States has stood apart from most of the world in its practice of electing judges; today, 39 U.S. states elect at least some judges and 87% of state court judges will stand for an election at some point in their careers. Why this fascination with judicial elections? Well, it can be chalked up to the populist origins of the practice — as a measure for combating corrupt patronage networks in the mid-1800s — and the belief that elections render judges more democratically accountable.
But as states like Florida have learned, judicial elections never lived up to their populist promise. In fact, there was a time, not so long ago, when corruption ruled Florida’s judiciary. The stories abound: There was the judge in the late 1960s who required lawyers to contribute to his campaign before they could argue. Even more embarrassing were the three members of the Florida Supreme Court who resigned in the early 1970s after getting caught pressuring lower courts to rule in favor of the justices’ campaign donors, allowing an interested party to ghostwrite an opinion, and enjoying a gambling spree in Las Vegas courtesy of a dog track that was litigating a case before the court. The reason for this gap between theory and practice: the need to raise campaign funds undercuts judicial integrity and invites quid pro quo corruption.
Now, Williams-Yulee turned out to be a victory for anticorruption: the Court held that Florida could bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Unfortunately, though, the victory is small and fleeting: the Court’s reasoning focused on the extremely narrow nature of the Florida rule and impliedly rejected most campaign finance restrictions in judicial elections (beyond contribution limits). So even after Williams-Yulee, states still have little in their arsenal with which to combat the evils of judicial elections. Maybe then, in an era when more and more money is flowing into judicial campaigns, Williams-Yulee ought to be our wake-up call — a sign that its time for the United States to kick the “insanely and characteristically American” habit of electing judges.