Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Ninth Circuit Upholds Alaska's Contribution Limits, Except its Nonresident Aggregate Contribution Limit
The Ninth Circuit ruled in Thompson v. Hebdon that Alaska's person-to-candidate, person-to-non-political-party-group, and political-party-to-candidate contribution limits were valid. But at the same time the court struck the state's nonresident aggregate contribution limit as a violation of free speech.
The case tested four separate provisions of Alaska's campaign finance law.
The first provision limits individual contribution to candidates to $500. Based on trial court evidence, the Ninth Circuit held that the limit was "narrowly focused" to address actual and potential quid pro quo corruption in the state. As to the amount, the court noted that $500 was low, but not unreasonably so, and still allowed candidates plenty of opportunities to fund their campaigns. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the cap should be measured in comparison to the prior limit, $1,000, and that the state should justify the drop.
The second provision limits individual contributions to non-party organizations to $500. The court upheld this limit as a measure designed to avoid circumvention of the individual contribution limit, above. "We conclude that Alaska has demonstrated the same interest here where the risk of circumvention of the individual-to-candidate limit is apparent: under Alaska law, any two individuals could form a 'group,' which could then funnel money to a candidate. Such groups could easily become pass-through entities for, say, a couple that wants to contribute more than the $500 individual-to-candidate limit."
The third provision limits political party contributions to candidates to $5,000. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that this amounts to discriminatory treatment (in comparison to labor-union PACs), but noted that its ruling doesn't foreclose a challenge to the dollar amount.
Finally, the fourth provision limits nonresident aggregate contributions to $3,000. Here's why:
Alaska fails to show why an out-of-state individual's early contribution is not corrupting, whereas a later individual's contribution--i.e., a contribution made after the candidate has already amassed $3,000 in out-of-state funds--is corrupting. Nor does Alaska show that an out-of-state contribution of $500 is inherently more corrupting than a like in-state contribution--only the former of which is curbed under Alaska's nonresident limit. Alaska fails to demonstrate that the risk of quid pro quo corruption turns on a particular donor's geography. Accordingly, while we do not foreclose the possibility that a state could limit out-of-state contributions in furtherance of an anti-corruption interest, Alaska's aggregate limit on what a candidate may receive is a poor fit.
Chief Judge Thomas concurred on the first three provisions, but dissented on this last one. Judge Thomas argued that the limit furthered the state's interests in actual quid pro quo corruption and its appearance and its interest in preserving "self-governance."