Supreme Court puts Alaska judge’s $500 campaign contribution limit in doubt

The U.S. Supreme Court today threw a big question mark on Alaska’s $500 limit on annual campaign contributions.

In the case of Thompson vs. Hebdon (the Alaska Public Offices Commission), the high court threw the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review their work, and the high court vacated the lower court’s decision upholding the $500 limit.

The Supreme Court decision implies that the $500 campaign limit in Alaska is invalid, but it would likely take a court injunction to stop it from being in effect, since it is in statute and the Alaska Public Offices Commission is bound to uphold it.

The high court said that the Ninth Circuit judges who had rejected the lawsuit by three Alaskans failed to consider a 2006 ruling by the Supreme Court against low contribution limits on political campaigns in Vermont. That state has since adjusted its contribution limit to $1,000.

In their lawsuit, Alaskans Jim Crawford, Aaron Downing, and David Thompson said they each donated $500 to campaigns, and wanted to donate more, but were stopped by the Alaska law prohibiting contributions of over $500. They took it to court and now-Attorney General Kevin Clarkson was their attorney.

Today, Clarkson is the one who must argue for preserving the law limiting contributions to campaigns, while arguing against Clarkson is his old law partner Robin Brena, who has become the new attorney for the group suing over the $500 limit, although a leading attorney in Washington, D.C. is the one who is handling the case.

Jim Crawford said it is a case of keen importance to conservatives in Alaska.

“Importantly, we tied our case to Citizens United and the free speech argument,” said Crawford. “What I want is a level playing field. I don’t want the labor guys to be able to contribute $2,500 to a campaign and individuals can’t. We’ll lose every single race so long as we have unions and liberals out there that have the financial advantage.”

“We’ve been trying this case for four years. The win at the U.S. Supreme Court is very, very solid. They seem bound by the precedent of Citizens United, and now we get a level playing field,” Crawford said.

The court, in its unsigned decision, seemed generally unimpressed with Alaska’s campaign finance laws:

“Alaska’s contribution limit is not adjusted for inflation. We observed in Randall that Vermont’s ‘failure to index limits means that limits which are already suspiciously low’ will ‘almost inevitably become too low over
time.’ The failure to index ‘imposes the burden of preventing the decline upon incumbent legislators who may not diligently police the need for changes in limit levels to ensure the adequate financing of electoral
challenges.’ So too here. In fact, Alaska’s $500 contribution limit is the same as it was 23 years ago, in 1996.”

The Supreme Court also noted Alaska’s individual-to-candidate contribution
limit is substantially lower than comparable limits in other States.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate opinion, but even she said she didn’t oppose remanding this case back to the Ninth Circuit.

She stated that Alaska’s reliance on resource development, specifically the oil industry, may make the state more prone to political corruption, and so that may justify the low limits.

“I do not oppose a remand to take account of Randall v. Sorrell,” she wrote. “I note, however, that Alaska’s law does not exhibit certain features found troublesome in Vermont’s law. For example, unlike in Vermont, political parties in Alaska are subject to much more lenient contribution limits than individual donors. Moreover, Alaska has the second smallest legislature in the country and derives approximately 90 percent of its revenues from one economic sector—the oil and gas industry. As the District Court suggested, these characteristics make Alaska “highly, if not uniquely, vulnerable to corruption in politics and government.” Ginsberg said Alaska is a special case and may warrant such a limit as the law currently provides.

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