Case on judges’ campaign fundraising divides Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard a case that could unravel state laws on judicial candidates asking for campaign donations. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Judy Woodruff to explain the arguments in the Florida case, take a look at a unanimous decision to allow a prisoner to grow a beard for religious reasons and offer an update on legal action over military burn pits.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It was a day of decisions and argument at the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices ruled in favor of an Arkansas prisoner who wanted to grow a beard for religious reasons, but had been barred from doing so because of prison rules.

    And the justices heard a case that could unravel state laws around the country regarding judicial candidates soliciting campaign donations.

    We are joined now by NewsHour contributor Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

    So, Marcia, let's talk first about this unanimous decision having to do with the case — we just described it — a prisoner in Arkansas who wanted to grow a beard.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    Right. Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    He's a Muslim. Tell us about this.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes.

    Gregory Holt claimed that the no-beard policy by Arkansas violated his right under a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act of 2000. And that act prohibits the government from substantially burdening an institutionalized person's religious expression, unless the government chooses the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling government interest.

    Arkansas defended its policy in the Supreme Court, saying it had two compelling interests. It wanted to — it wanted to cut back on the hiding of contraband within beards. And it also wanted to ensure quick identification of prisoners who might, by growing beards, alter their appearance and get into forbidden areas of a prison.

    Justice Alito wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court today, and he said that the court really doesn't question those compelling interests. But the problem was that Arkansas didn't choose the least restrictive means here to achieve them.

    For example, the contraband issue, he said it's very hard to believe that a prisoner could hide contraband like a razor blade in a half-inch beard.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's only a half-inch beard.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Exactly.

    And he said they allow prisoners to grow their hair long, and they search that hair for contraband. Why not do it with beards? And then on the quick identification of prisoners, he said, why not a before-and-after photograph that you can use?

    So it was a very straightforward opinion.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, again, unanimous.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes.

    And I would also like to point out, Judy, that 43 states and the federal government allow beards on prisoners, some even longer than a half-inch.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, let me ask you about something else. The court also heard an argument today. This was a Florida case involving campaign contributions to candidates for judicial office. Tell us about the argument.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    OK.

    This was a challenge under the First Amendment by a woman who had run for a county court seat, and she lost. She was challenging the Florida bar — or, actually, it's the judicial ethics rule, and it was defended by the Florida bar — that prohibits judicial candidates from directly soliciting contributions in their campaigns.

    But the rule allows the judicial candidate to create a committee, a candidate committee to solicit those contributions under the candidate's name and also allows the candidate to write thank-you notes for contributions. So, in the arguments today, the court appeared divided over what to do here, a very similar divide to all of its campaign finance cases recently.

    On the one hand, you had Chief Justice Roberts basically saying, look, when a state makes a fundamental decision to elect its judges, it's putting them into the political fray. And election speech is at the core of First Amendment protection. And then, on the other hand, you had some of the court's more liberal justices, like Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, saying, yes, but judicial candidates aren't exactly like other political candidates for office.

    Other political candidates are expected to make commitments to do things. Judicial candidates are supposed to be neutral, impartial. And so you saw that divide playing out, as the Florida bar defended the rules, saying, we're trying to eliminate that direct link between the judicial candidate and the contributor. That is a link that creates either the appearance or actual corruption, and it diminishes public confidence in the judiciary.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And just quickly, what piece of the Constitution is at play here?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    This is the First Amendment.

    And like I said, election speech, even if it involves money, is at the core of First Amendment protections.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, just one other short thing I want to mention, Marcia. We know that the justices declined to hear a number of quick cases today.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But one of those involved a story that we have done here on the "NewsHour" involving so-called burn pits in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan where chemicals are used and where the troops have experienced aftereffects of breathing in from these burn pits.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Right. Yes. Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, this mean that class-action suits, as I understand it, can go forward.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    A large number of suits were filed by U.S. military service members who claimed injuries from the exposure to the chemicals and the toxic fumes coming out of these open-air burn pits.

    The Supreme Court declined review. It was an appeal brought by the contractor here who operated the burn pits, Kellogg Brown & Root. And by declining that appeal, which the Obama administration also said to the court, decline the appeal, it left in place a federal appellate court decision saying, look, these claims should go forward. The district court dismissed them too quickly. There wasn't enough evidence in the record for the district court to dismiss them.

    So the process we call discovery will go forward on these claims. The people bringing them live to fight another day.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Very interesting.

    Marcia Coyle, we thank you.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    My pleasure, Judy.

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