Federal judge rejects suit challenging Alaska limits on campaign donations

This is a big news.

In what might signal a light at the end of the tunnel, a federal judge rejected a challenge to Alaska’s limits on state-level campaign contributions. The decision, which came just before Election Day upheld the limits, ruling that they do not violate the free speech or equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

A group of Republicans brought the suit in November, and a weeklong trial ended in May.

In an earlier blog post, Ron Fein, our Legal Advocacy Director, weighed in the Alaska’s brief defending the limits. Read Ron’s analysis, here.

The state’s lawyers discussed the case with Free Speech For People while developing the brief, and we brought attention to this aspect of the argument:

Some background: Alaska has relatively forward-thinking campaign finance laws designed to reduce the influence of big money in elections. One key provision limits the total amount of money that a candidate for state or local office can accept per year from nonresidents. For example, a candidate for governor is limited to $20,000 in out-of-state contributions. (You can understand why: as the Alaska Supreme Court once observed, “Alaska has a long history of both support from and exploitation by nonresident interests. Its beauty and resources have long been lightning rods for social, developmental, and environmental interests.”) But the challengers in a new lawsuit claim this provision violates their constitutional rights.

Alaska’s recent legal brief sets forth two arguments in support of the nonresident contribution limits. First, the state argues, the nonresident limits help limit quid pro quo corruption. But the state also advances a thoughtful argument based on “protecting Alaska’s system of self-government from outside control.” As the state explains, “Alaska may limit nonresident participation in its political processes for the same reason it may prohibit nonresidents from voting—because they are not members of Alaska’s self-governing political community.”

This argument draws support from a little-reported Supreme Court decision just two years after Citizens United. The case of Bluman v. FEC involved a federal law prohibiting foreign nationals from contributing or spending money in federal, state, or local elections. Two Canadians in the U.S. on temporary visas challenged the prohibition—after all, Citizens United had just a year before waxed poetic about how a ban on corporate political spending violated the prohibition against “distinguishing among different speakers, allowing speech by some but not others” and thereby “deprive[d] the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration.” If corporations can spend unlimited money in elections, why couldn’t Mr. Bluman spend a few bucks to “print flyers supporting President Obama’s reelection and to distribute them in Central Park”?

The decision, from U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess, an appointee of George W. Bush, came a day before high-stakes legislative elections that may change control of the state House or Senate.

As reported by Alaska Dispatch News, “Burgess, in his decision issued late Monday, wrote that he was initially skeptical that the state would be able to defend the campaign donation limits as written, including a $500-per-person annual limit on contributions to candidates and restrictions on out-of-state contributions.”

But, he said, the state ended up providing enough evidence to justify the limits.

“Accordingly, the challenged provisions of Alaska’s campaign finance laws are upheld as constitutional,” Burgess wrote.

Monday’s ruling in Alaska is an important sign that the tides may soon be changing in favor of ‘we the people.’

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