WASHINGTON — She challenged a respected incumbent and lost by a mile, taking merely 20 percent of the vote in a bid to sit on the Hillsborough County Court.
But this morning, Lanell Williams-Yulee will have a star role in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. It stems from her 2010 campaign against Judge Dick Greco Jr. and could have sweeping national implications in the way judicial candidates raise money.
Williams-Yulee ran into trouble in 2009 when she sent out a signed letter asking for "an early contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250, or $500."
That violated a Florida Bar rule about direct solicitations, but Williams-Yulee, who drew a reprimand and a $1,860 fine, challenged it on First Amendment grounds.
The Florida Bar does not prevent candidates, who can maintain campaign committees, from knowing the names of donors or writing thank-you notes — an inconsistency Williams-Yulee's lawyers emphasized in a court petition.
"Which is worse?" asked attorney Ernest Myers of Orlando in an interview Monday. "Allowing a candidate to ask for money openly and have the voters take this into account when casting their ballot? Or perpetuating a lie that the candidate is completely removed from all fundraising activities, leaving the electorate ignorant when they make their choice?"
That's a simplistic view, said Daniel Wallach, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of three former Florida Supreme Court justices and a number of noted lawyers in the state.
"The interest here isn't just merely quid pro quo corruption. There's also the public perception of a fair and impartial judiciary," he said in an interview. "The notion of a robed judge asking for money creates an extremely negative perception and erodes public confidence in the judicial system."
The Supreme Court has set aside an hour for arguments beginning at 11 a.m. and would rule by the end of the current term in June.
The case has attracted widespread attention because of the growing influence of money in judicial elections. Nationally 29 other states have adopted restrictions similar to Florida, out of 39 states that elect judges.
Several federal appeals courts have struck down bans such as Florida's, enacted in the early 1970s after a series of scandals, including a state Supreme Court justice who went on a gambling trip to Las Vegas paid for by a dog track with business before the court.
Defenders of the bans fear a flood of money would enter judicial races. The New York Times in an editorial Monday fretted Florida's law "may soon become the latest victim of the post-Citizens United era, where money is speech and more of it is only better." The high court's Citizens United decision — handed down five years ago this month — helped fuel the modern era of outsized money in political campaigns.
Already judicial elections are attracting more money. Between 1990 and 1999, candidates raised approximately $83.3 million. But in the next decade they raised nearly $207 million, according to a report in the Duke Law Journal cited by McClatchy.
In a court filing, Williams-Yulee's lawyers argue there are other ways to prevent bias, including judicial recusal and limits on campaign contributions. "The availability of those less restrictive alternatives dooms Florida's across-the-board speech ban."
Her case has drawn the support of Yale Law School's Supreme Court Clinic, which is providing pro bono legal work, and the ACLU, which said in a petition that "campaign speech by candidates for judicial office, like campaign speech by candidates for other offices, is entitled to the highest degree of First Amendment protection." A better way, the ACLU argued, is a ban on solicitations of people with cases pending before the court or public funding of campaigns.
Lining up behind the Florida Bar are the American Bar Association, campaign finance watchdog groups and 11 other states with restrictions on solicitations by judicial candidates.
Williams-Yulee graduated from the Mississippi College School of Law and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1991, then worked for three years as a prosecutor with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. She went into private practice and represented one of the Walker Middle School (located in Odessa) teens charged with sexual assault in 2009. The defendants entered plea deals and were not labeled sex offenders.
She was a first-time candidate when she challenged Greco in 2010, vowing to bring diversity to the Hillsborough bench.
When her personalized solicitation was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, her campaign committee attributed it to not being well versed in the restrictions.
Myers, her attorney, said news coverage of the case has overplayed the issue. "This case has nothing to do with who can give, how much they can give, under what circumstances they can give. It has to do with, is there evil in asking the question?"
Yes, said Edward Blumberg, a Miami trial lawyer and former president of the Florida Bar, who argued the judicial branch has a special place in the democracy. To allow candidates to directly seek money would undermine the fairness one should expect walking into the courtroom, he said.
"It's unbearable. That's the end of us. You say, 'Isn't that an exaggeration?' We know we have a history here and we know what money can do. Why would we risk that?"
Contact Alex Leary at email@example.com. Follow @learyreports.