Supreme Court mulls whether campaign contributions to judges creates judicial bias
Judge holds scales and law book (

The Supreme Court's nine justices appeared divided Tuesday during arguments on whether elected US judges should be able to accept campaign contributions, a move that opponents say causes judicial bias.

A total of 39 of 50 US states elect local judges, unlike at the federal level where judges, such as the Supreme Court justices, are appointed for life.

Of the states where elections are held, a total of 30, including Florida, ban judges from soliciting campaign funds, in a move meant to encourage impartiality behind the bench.

The case before the Supreme Court asks whether seeking contributions introduces impartiality and whether it should be allowed under the US Constitution's First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.

Plaintiff Lanell Williams-Yulee, who sent out a fundraising letter in 2009 during an unsuccessful county court bid in Florida, where fundraising by judges is prohibited, believes the ban restricted her free speech.

However, the Florida Supreme court held that the ban promoted "the integrity of the judiciary and [maintained] the public's confidence in an impartial judiciary."

It also ordered Williams-Yulee to pay $1,860 in court costs.

At the hearing Tuesday justices seemed split.

Conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts suggested banning fundraising would be unconstitutional, adding that "the fundamental choice was made by the state when they said 'we're going to have judges elected.'"

But the court's four progressive justices appeared inclined to believe that accepting campaign funds -- a common practice among US politicians -- was unethical for a judge.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked if being elected changed "the fundamental meaning of a judge" and seemed receptive to the Florida Bar's argument that "judges are expected to be impartial."

An ultimate decision, likely to come in June, could impact the judicial elections in the 30 states that have banned fundraising.