Major network newscasts have given almost no coverage to an upcoming Supreme Court case that will decide whether judicial candidates can personally solicit campaign donations -- despite the risk of corruption.
On January 20, the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, in which a candidate for an elected county judge position -- Lanell Williams-Yulee -- sent out a fundraising letter that she signed herself. As in the majority of states, judicial candidates in Florida are prohibited from sending out this kind of direct solicitation to prevent the appearance or risk of corruption. Instead, they are required to set up separate campaign committees to send out fundraising requests on their behalf. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against Williams-Yulee, who was ultimately reprimanded and fined. Williams-Yulee is now arguing that the ethical rule restricting her ability to ask for donations is an unconstitutional restriction of her free speech, an extension of the argument validated by the conservative justices in Citizens United and its progeny.
This case gives the conservative justices of the Supreme Court yet another chance to roll back restrictions on campaign finance -- which they have steadily gutted since 2010's Citizens United decision allowing millions of dollars to flood the federal election system. Most recently, the court struck down aggregate campaign limits in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, making it easier for wealthy donors to contribute to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties.
Yet a Media Matters analysis of Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) as well as nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) reveals just one segment that covered the Williams-Yulee case since it was appealed to the Supreme Court -- the October 2 edition of PBS NewsHour.
The broadcast networks have regularly failed to provide comprehensive coverage of campaign finance deregulation in the wake of Citizens United, with the exception of PBS NewsHour. A 2014 Media Matters analysis of campaign finance coverage showed that PBS covered big money in politics more than all the other networks combined. The dearth of coverage on the other networks is disappointing, especially given that a majority of Americans from both sides of the aisle support a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling in Citizens United and reduce the outsize influence of billionaires in the democratic process.
Media coverage of campaign finance reform in judicial elections is also extremely important, especially given that the majority of states hold elections for at least some judges -- and those elections have increasingly been targeted by conservative special interest groups that spend millions to influence the outcome of those races. As The Washington Post reported, Florida is one of 30 states that block judicial candidates from asking for campaign contributions directly in an effort to eliminate corruption in the judiciary:
[Former Florida Supreme Court chief justice Harry Lee Anstead] said the image of a judge accepting contributions in a “handshake” with a donor is “anathema to the whole function of the judicial branch.”
Anstead pointed out that Florida's restrictions arose not from a hypothetical concern about ethics but a real scandal that rocked the state's judiciary in the 1970s. Four justices of the state Supreme Court resigned following corruption scandals, including attempts to fix cases on behalf of campaign contributors.
The restrictions were enacted as part of a series of changes, including a system of merit retention for many of the state's judges and justices.
Anstead said the potential problems would be magnified because of recent Supreme Court decisions easing restrictions on campaign contributions and a new focus by the political parties and special-interest groups on control of state supreme courts.
It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court will rule in Williams-Yulee, but the conservative justices have not shown a willingness to pass up many opportunities to deregulate big money in politics.
This report analyzed coverage of Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar on Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) and four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour). Our analysis included any segment that mentioned the case between June 1, 2014, and January 6, 2015 -- the period between when the justices were petitioned to hear Williams-Yulee through the present week. The phrases “judicial election” and “judicial candidate” were included in the search in the event a broadcast did not refer to the case specifically.
Transcripts from the Nexis database as well as Media Matters' internal video archives were used to analyze these segments.