BAUER v. SHEPARD (August 20, 2010)

Indiana Right to Life, Inc. sends questionnaires to judicial candidates for election or retention. The questionnaires seek information on the recipient's views on abortion. The organization filed suit challenging certain provisions of Indiana's Code of Judicial Conduct relating to the political activities of judges and candidates for judicial office. The suit was dismissed for lack of standing. In the present suit, the organization is joined by a sitting judge and a candidate for judicial office. The plaintiffs challenge five provisions of the code, four current and one which was in effect in 2008: a) the current and former rules forbidding "commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of judicial office," b) the rule requiring recusal of a judge if he or she made a public statement "that commits or appears to commit the judge to reach a particular result," c) the rule limiting the partisan political activities of judges, and d) limits on fundraising. Judge Springmann (N.D. Ind.) concluded that the challenge to the earlier version of the code was moot and concluded that the challenged sections of the current code were all constitutional. Plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Manion and Evans affirmed as modified. The Court first concluded that the individual plaintiffs had standing because of the threat to prosecute and the probability of future injury. Next, the Court addressed the challenge to the no-longer current section of the code. It disagreed with the lower court's finding of mootness. The code's amendment in 2009 did not eliminate the possibility of a prosecution for an earlier violation. Nevertheless, given the significant number of unlikely steps that must occur before such a prosecution, the Court concluded that the matter was not ripe for adjudication. The Court then addressed the merits of the challenge to the four current provisions in light of the Supreme Court's decision in White and the Court's own decision earlier this year in Siefert. The Court held: 1) The solicitation prohibition is fundamentally the same as the one the Court upheld in Siefert. It is not facially unconstitutional and the state should be given an opportunity to make exceptions as appropriate. 2) Although Siefert did not address political leadership roles and speechmaking, it did uphold a prohibition on public political endorsements. Its analysis led the Court to conclude that the preservation of public confidence in the judiciary is enough of a compelling interest to uphold the leadership and speechmaking prohibitions of the Indiana code. White dealt with limitations on the judge's own positions -- it did not affect precedent dealing with a judge's impact on the other elections. 3) With respect to the "commits" provision, the Court distinguished between the questionnaire, which asked for a candidate's views on certain topics and which the Supreme Court said was allowable, and the code provision, which only prohibits commitments "inconsistent with the impartial performance" of one's office. The Court did recognize some vagueness in the language. However, instead of identifying hypothetical situations in which the state may act too broadly, the Court chose to assume that the state would act reasonably and continue to refine the meaning of the provision through the administrative processes. 4) Finally, with respect to the recusal provision, the Court found no constitutional issue at all. The recusal clause does not address a judge's role as candidate -- it addresses a judge's role as public employee. Under Garcetti, a judge's speech in his role as a judge is not protected speech. Furthermore, a state has every right to allocate a court case to a judge whose impartiality is not open to debate.