February 17, 2010

Breaking News: Federal District Court Issues Important Split Decision in San Diego Campaign Finance Case

As I've noted on the blog, I was brought in recently as co-counsel to represent the City of San Diego in a challenge brought to five city campaign contribution limit laws. Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction, and the federal district court has now issued its opinion and order on the preliminary injunction motion.

In a careful and thoughtful opinion, the court upheld the core of the challenged laws: left standing are the $500 limits on individual contributions to candidates, a ban on contributions by non-human entitles (aside from political parties), including corporations and labor union contributions to candidates, and a 12-month temporal limitation on contributions to candidates. On the contributions by entities, the Court held that Citizens United did not prevent the city from enacting the contribution ban applicable to these entities.

The court, however, struck down limits on contributions to independent expenditure committees, relying heavily on dicta in Citizens United (I think the first court to do so). It also held, in what I believe to be a holding of first impression, that political parties have a constitutional right to make contributions to candidates (even in non-partisan elections). The court relied upon dicta from the controlling opinion in Randall v. Sorrell to reach this result. The court stayed this part of its order to give the city a chance to enact reasonable contribution limits applicable to political parties. Finally, the court held that an ethics commission interpretation of the 12-month temporal limitation, which read that limitation to bar a candidate's use of her own funds to support her campaign, was unconstitutional as to the candidate's own expenditures.

There is no word yet on whether there will be any appeal on either side of the case. The question of contribution limits to independent expenditure committees has been pending for some time in the Ninth Circuit in a case out of Long Beach. That decision could come at any time.

This is just a ruling on the preliminary injunction. The court could also change its mind on these issues in any final judgment.

Posted by Rick Hasen at February 17, 2010 09:12 AM