LOCATION: Los Angeles City Hall
DOCKET NO.: 01-521
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
CITATION: 536 US 765 (2002)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 27, 2002
Facts of the case
Minnesota's Constitution provides for the selection of all state judges by popular election. The announcement clause of the Minnesota Supreme Court's canon of judicial conduct prohibits a candidate from announcing his or her views on disputed legal or political issues. While running for associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Gregory Wersal filed suit, seeking a declaration that the announce clause violates the First Amendment and an injunction against its enforcement. Wersal alleged that he was forced to refrain from announcing his views on disputed issues during the 1998 campaign, to the point where he declined response to questions put to him by the press and public, out of concern that he might run afoul of the announce clause. The District Court found that the announcement clause did not violate the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Does the First Amendment permit the Minnesota Supreme Court to prohibit candidates for judicial election in that State from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues?
Media for Republican Party of Minnesota v. WhiteAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 2002 in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 2002 in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in No. 01-521, Republican Party of Minnesota versus White will be announced by Justice Scalia.
This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
There is a long tradition in this country of the states selecting their judges by popular election.
Vermont did so even before the founding of the Union.
By the time of the Civil War, the great majority of the states did so and they continue to do so today.
Minnesota is one of those states.
Ever since its admission to the Union in 1858, the Minnesota constitution has provided for the selection of all state judges by popular election.
Beginning in 1924, the American Bar Association began to promulgate model codes of judicial conduct that included restrictions on what candidates for judicial office could say during their election campaigns.
The states slowly adapted these restrictions not by legislation but by decree of State Supreme Courts.
One of these restrictions is known as the announce clause and it was adapted by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1974.
The announce clause prohibits candidates for judicial election incumbent judges and challengers alike from “announcing their views on disputed legal or political issue”.
What this means is that the candidates cannot state their views even in response to questions on any specific non-fanciful legal question within the providence of the courts for which they are running.
Indeed, the Judicial Board in Minnesota has printed a list of pre-approved questions which judicial candidates are allowed to answer.
These include how the candidate feels about Commerce in the courtroom, how he would go about reducing the case load, and how the court’s cause of judicial administration could be reduced, how he proposes to insure that minorities and women are treated more fairly by the court system.
Petitioners who include Gregory Wersal, an erstwhile candidate for Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court sued respondents, several state officials who enforced the announce clause, seeking a declaration of the clause violates the First Amendment and an injunction against its enforcement.
The District Court upheld the constitutionality of the clause and granted summary judgment in favor of respondents.
The Eight Circuit affirmed.
We now reverse.
The announce clause is a content-based regulation that burdens a category of speech at the core of our First Amendment freedom’s; speech about the qualifications of candidates for public office.
Accordingly, in order to pass constitutional master, the clause must satisfy our strict scrutiny test.
Under this test, respondents have the burden to prove that the clause is: one, narrowly tailored in order to, number two, serve a compelling state interest.
Respondents assert that the announce clause serves two compelling state interests, namely: preserving the impartiality of the state judiciary and preserving the appearance of that impartiality.
Under any definition of impartiality, we conclude the announce clause clearly does not survive strict scrutiny.
The traditional meaning of impartiality is a lack of bias for or against either party to a proceeding.
That is the sentencing which the term is used when the cases sighted by respondents for the proposition that an impartial judge is essential to due process.
It is obvious that the announce clause is not narrowly tailored to serve either this sort of impartiality or its appearance.
The clause does not restricts speech for or against particular parties but rather speech for or against particular issues.
To be sure when a case arises that turns on a legal issue on which a judge as a candidate has taken a particular stand, the party taking the opposite stand is likely to lose but not because of any bias against that party.
Any party taking that position is just as likely to lose.
Another possible meaning of impartiality, though certainly not a common one, is the lack of preconception in favor or against a particular legal view.