Efforts to politicize Kentucky's nonpartisan judicial races have been dealt a blow from an unlikely source: Chief Justice John Roberts was the swing vote in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Florida's ban on judicial candidates personally soliciting campaign contributions.
Splitting with the court's other conservatives, Roberts wrote "judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot."
Wednesday's 5-4 ruling puts to rest part of a federal lawsuit challenging judicial election rules in Kentucky, including prohibitions on candidates soliciting contributions and advertising themselves as a specific political party's candidate.
The plaintiffs in that lawsuit include two unsuccessful candidates for judgeships in Kenton and Campbell counties, Robert Winter and Cameron Blau. They prominently advertised themselves as Republicans and lost, despite the GOP's dominance in Northern Kentucky.
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Kentucky voters apparently don't want judges who are politicians any more than the chief justice does.
Roberts reasoned that the integrity of an impartial judiciary is at risk when would-be judges are out asking for money. He wrote, "the public may lack confidence in a judge's ability to administer justice without fear or favor if he comes to office by asking for favors."
Kentucky is one of 30 states that elect judges.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reports that spending in state supreme court elections more than doubled from the 1990s to the 2000s — from $83 million to more than $200 million. In 2011-12, nearly $30 million was spent just on television commercials in races for state supreme courts, which frequently hand down decisions important to business interests.
Federal courts in recent years have been striking down state limits on what judicial candidates are allowed to promise from the campaign stump. Intended to safeguard the judiciary's impartiality, such limits have been struck down as violations of First Amendment free speech guarantees.
Roberts has been the swing vote in U.S. Supreme Court decisions that opened the floodgates on unlimited spending in other elections, enshrining the doctrine that money is speech.
Roberts stressed that the prohibition on judge candidates soliciting contributions is "narrowly tailored" and that they remain free to run vigorous campaigns and ask for support, just not for money.
But anything, no matter how narrow, that raises the bench above the money sewer of politics is welcome.