NASHVILLE (AP) — A provision the Tennessee Supreme Court initially included in an overhaul of conduct rules for state judges was changed before the code took effect.
The Tennessean reported judges are allowed to make political contributions because of the change. The majority of the conduct rules remain intact.
Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Casey Mahoney said the justices received three letters after they circulated the proposed changes, complaining that not allowing contributions by judges abridged their free speech rights. The justices treated the letters as a petition and asked for comment, eventually deleting the provision barring political contributions before the changes took effect July 1.
A statement from the courts office said the revision allows elected judges and judicial candidates to make contributions to political organizations or to other candidates for public office. They may also buy tickets to fundraising dinners and other political events. Judges and judicial candidates, however, are prohibited from endorsing or opposing other candidates for public office.
There are opinions both pro and con.
“The better practice is for judges to err on the side of staying out of politics,” said Adam Skaggs, attorney with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “Judges would be well served to avoid injecting themselves in heated partisan debates.”
However, the Tennessee Bar Association weighed in against such a ban.
“The courts have held that money is speech,” said Allan Ramsaur, who leads the association.
Ramsaur said there must be a compelling reason to infringe on First Amendment rights.
Dick Williams of Common Cause Tennessee, which advocates for government openness, said “it’s a step back from what could have been a significant step forward.”
“Preventing endorsement is meaningless because a contribution is a de facto endorsement,” Williams said. “It signals that the court bowed to the interest of those who want to contribute.”
Skaggs said states are trying to use the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case to deregulate judicial rules. The ruling gave corporations and unions the right to make unlimited political contributions.
“If they succeed, it is going to create courts that are staffed with people indistinguishable from other political groups, which would be a great disservice to the public,” Skaggs said.
Davidson County Election Commission records show at least 27 judges in Tennessee made political donations this year. Almost all were under $1,000.