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The Supreme Court's decision in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar upheld restrictions on judicial campaigns, and while it didn't address the propriety of electing judges, Chief Justice Roberts did acknowledge that the practice of judges asking lawyers around town for donations can make things pretty awkward.
Judicial elections have long represented a gray zone for ethics; normally, lawyers aren't allowed to give judges anything of value, but during election season, everything is A-OK. But is there a line that you shouldn't cross? How much is too much when it comes to donating to a judge's election campaign?
It's the Judge's Responsibility
Lest you worry, in most states, the burden is on the judge to disclose donations to his or her campaign and to keep apprised of conflicts of interest. In California, for example, judges can't participate in a case where a party donated $1,500 or more to the judge's election campaign within the last six years. (This requirement can be waived by the non-donating party.)
This is a variation on the ABA's Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Rule 2.11, which states that a judge must disqualify himself if a party in a case before him has donated more than a specified amount to the judge's campaign. As a result, lawyers who want to avoid recusal problems would do well to stay under the limits that trigger recusal.
Other states have caps on individual donations, so how much you can donate isn't up to you. The limits range from $500 per candidate per year in Alaska to $5,000 per candidate per year in Idaho.
Quid Pro Quo, Clarice
As long as lawyers comply with their local rules, then technically, donating to judicial campaigns doesn't carry the appearance that a lawyer is trying to influence a judge's decision.
Not that that doesn't happen, of course. The amount of money involved in judicial elections recently has raised alarm, with each successive election breaking the record set by the previous election. In 2014, spending on state supreme court races amounted to $14 million, reported the Los Angeles Times. Clearly, someone wants particular judges to be elected, though it may not be a quid pro quo, but rather an attempt to get ideologically friendly judges on the bench.
Even so, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found that, in Wisconsin, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson sided with parties who donated $1,500 or more to her campaign 71 percent of the time, compared to 58 percent for overall contributors.
And in 2009, in a case that stretches to the margins of the problem, the U.S. Supreme Court said a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself in a case involving Massey Energy, where Massey's CEO donated $3 million to the justice's campaign.
So what's the "right" amount to donate to a judicial candidate? Whatever your state's limit is, if you want to avoid any ethical trouble -- for you or the judge.