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French v. Jones

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

December 7, 2017

Mark French, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Blair Jones, in his official capacity as Chair of Montana's Judicial Standards Commission; Mike Menahan, in his official capacity as a member of Montana's Judicial Standards Commission; Victor Valgenti, in his official capacity as a member of Montana's Judicial Standards Commission; John Murphy, in his official capacity as a member of Montana's Judicial Standards Commission; Brianne Dugan, in her official capacity as a member of Montana's Judicial Standards Commission, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted June 16, 2017 Seattle, Washington

         Appeal from the United States District Court No. 4:14-cv-00057-SEH for the District of Montana Sam E. Haddon, Senior District Judge, Presiding

          Matthew G. Monforton (argued), Monforton Law Offices PLLC, Bozeman, Montana, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Dale Schowengerdt (argued), Solicitor General; Mark W. Mattioli, Assistant Attorney General; Montana Department of Justice, Helena, Montana; for Defendants-Appellees.

          Elizabeth Arias (argued), Corey Collins, and Eugene Lim, Law Students; Eugene Volokh (argued), Supervising Attorney; Scott & Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic, UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles, California; for Amicus Curiae Center for Competitive Politics.

          Igor V. Timofeyev, Adam Weiss, and Danielle R.A. Susanj, Paul Hastings LLP, Washington, D.C.; Karl J. Sandstrom and David J. Lazarus, Perkins Coie LLP, Washington, D.C.; Keith R. Fisher, National Center for State Courts, Arlington, Virginia; for Amicus Curiae Conference of Chief Justices.

          Before: Jay S. Bybee and Milan D. Smith, Jr., Circuit Judges, and Jennifer A. Dorsey, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Civil Rights

         The panel affirmed the district court's summary judgment in an action brought by Mark French, a Montana judicial candidate, who alleged that Montana's campaign-speech rule, which prohibits judicial candidates from seeking, accepting, or using political endorsements in their election campaigns, violated his First Amendment rights.

         The panel held that Montana has compelling interests in an impartial and independent judiciary and that Rule 4.1(A)(7) of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct was narrowly tailored to those interests. The panel held that Rule 4.1(A)(7) struck an appropriate balance between a candidate's speech and Montana's interest in an independent and impartial judiciary. The panel held that French's arguments to the contrary were foreclosed by the Supreme Court's decision in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 135 S.Ct. 1656 (2015), and this Circuit's decision in Wolfson v. Concannon, 811 F.3d 1176 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc).

         The panel rejected French's arguments that Rule 4.1(A)(7) was fatally underinclusive. The panel held that: (1) an endorsement from a political party threatened the public perception of judicial independence to a greater degree than an endorsement from an interest group; (2) Montana could reasonably conclude that political endorsements were more suggestive of a quid-pro-quo exchange than donations; and (3) it made sense for Montana to prohibit the solicitation and use of endorsements during a judicial candidate's campaign and to limit those endorsement to political office holders and entities. The panel further held that the seeking and using of political endorsements was distinct from announcing one's views on certain issues.

         The panel rejected French's argument that Rule 4.1(A)(7) was overinclusive because Montana does not allow the candidates' campaign committees to seek and use political endorsements. The panel held that Montana had reasonably determined that both candidates and their committees posed a threat to its judiciary when they sought, accepted, or used political endorsements in their campaigns.

          OPINION

          BYBEE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Montanans select their judges through nonpartisan popular elections. In an effort to keep those elections nonpartisan, Montana has restricted judicial-campaign speech. One of those restrictions is before us-a rule that prohibits candidates from seeking, accepting, or using political endorsements in their campaigns. Mark French, a judicial candidate who wishes to seek and use such endorsements, claims that Montana's rule violates his First Amendment rights. Montana argues that the rule is narrowly tailored to ensuring the impartiality and independence of Montana's judiciary. The district court upheld the statute, and we agree. In light of the Supreme Court's decision in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 135 S.Ct. 1656 (2015), and our decision in Wolfson v. Concannon, 811 F.3d 1176 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc), we affirm the judgment.

         I

         Montana has declared that "[a]n independent, fair, and impartial judiciary is indispensable to [its] system of justice." Mont. Code of Judicial Conduct, Preamble (2009). Although that statement of principle must be universally acknowledged, American jurisdictions have chosen different means to secure it. See The Federalist No. 78, at 465 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton) (arguing for the appointment of judges). Since 1935, Montana has decided to select its judges through nonpartisan popular elections. See Mont. Code Ann. § 13-14-111. Recognizing that mixing politics with judging could lead to injustice, Montana has prohibited all judges and candidates for judicial office from "engag[ing] in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary." Mont. Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 4. That broad prohibition applies to such activities as holding an office in or making speeches on behalf of a political organization, publicly endorsing political candidates, publicly identifying oneself as a political candidate, and otherwise using the names of political parties in judicial campaigns.[1] Id. Rule 4.1; Mont. Code Ann. § 13-10-602(2).

         Only one restriction is at issue here. Rule 4.1(A)(7) of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct provides: "[A] judge or judicial candidate shall not . . . seek, accept, or use endorsements from a political organization, or partisan or independent non-judicial office-holder or candidate . . . ."[2]Mont. Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 4.1(A)(7). The Code defines a "political organization" as "a political party or other group sponsored by or affiliated with a political party or candidate, the principal purpose of which is to further the election or appointment of candidates for political office." Id. Terminology. If a judge or judicial candidate violates this endorsement provision, the Montana Judicial Standards Commission "shall recommend . . . the censure, suspension, removal, or disability retirement of the judicial officer." Mont. Code Ann. § 3-1-1106(3).

         In 2014, Mark French ran as a candidate for justice of the peace in Sanders County. The Sanders County Republican Central Committee endorsed French's candidacy, and two prominent Republican officeholders were willing to consider doing so if French had asked. Afraid of violating Rule 4.1(A)(7), French refrained from seeking or using these endorsements in his campaign. He ultimately lost the election, but intends to run again in 2018. Although French would like to seek and use political endorsements during the next election cycle, he understands that he cannot do so as long as Rule 4.1(A)(7) remains in place.

         French filed this action claiming that Rule 4.1(A)(7) violates his First Amendment rights and asking that the court enjoin its enforcement. The district court rejected French's argument and entered summary judgment against him. We review that decision de novo. See McIndoe v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., 817 F.3d 1170, 1173 (9th Cir. 2016).

         II

         The First Amendment, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the government from "abridging the freedom of speech." U.S. Const. amend. I; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 368 (1931) (incorporating "the right of free speech" into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment). Content-based restrictions on judicial-campaign speech are subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment. See Republican Party of Minn. v. White ("White I"), 536 U.S. 765, 774 (2002) (assuming strict scrutiny applies); Wolfson, 811 F.3d at 1180 (holding that strict scrutiny applies). To survive strict scrutiny, the government must show that "the restriction 'furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.'" Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 558 U.S. 310, 340 (2010) (citation omitted). "'[I]t is the rare case' in which a State demonstrates that a speech restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest . . . . But those cases do arise." Williams-Yulee, 135 S.Ct. ...


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