by Nat Stern, John W. & Ashley E. Frost Professor, Florida State University College of Law
The ability of politicians to utter falsehoods with legal impunity is evident today to perhaps an unprecedented degree. Less appreciated is that the overwhelming majority of judges in America qualify as politicians in the basic sense that they are chosen through some form of popular election. In the case of candidates for judicial office, however, nearly half of states codes contain a “misrepresent clause” barring deliberately false factual statements by judicial candidates.
The basis for this ban is understandable and even admirable. In contrast to legislators and elected executive officers, judges are expected to serve as detached and impartial arbiters of the law. Dishonest campaign tactics may then be viewed as impairing the administration of justice, tarnishing the public image of the judiciary or even revealing a disqualifying character trait. Nevertheless, the misrepresent clause—as opposed to generally applicable bans on certain kinds of dishonesty like defamation and fraud—probably violates the First Amendment. This conclusion derives mainly from the confluence of three Supreme Court doctrines: stringent protection of political speech, application of this doctrine to restrictions on judicial campaign speech and refusal to regard false expression as categorically unprotected.
It is a commonplace that unhindered political speech is essential to self-government and therefore lies at the heart of the First Amendment. Thus, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the privileged place of political expression in the hierarchy of First Amendment freedoms. Nor has the Court left any doubt that political campaign speech falls squarely within this protection. Accordingly, the Court has subjected restrictions on political expression to rigorous scrutiny.