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Federal appeals court panel rules Alaska campaign contribution limits unconstitutional

The $500 limit for Alaskans giving to candidates was struck down
Video from KTVU shows the exterior of San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals building....
Video from KTVU shows the exterior of San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals building. (Source: KTVU/CNN)
Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 6:10 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that some of Alaska’s campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional in an opinion released Friday.

The plaintiffs, three individuals and a subdivision of the Alaska Republican Party, had challenged the state’s campaign contribution limits as an unconstitutional infringement of their rights to free speech under the First Amendment. The federal district court for Alaska initially upheld the four provisions the plaintiffs were challenging, according to Friday’s opinion.

The 9th Circuit originally agreed with the district court on all but one of the provisions. The plaintiffs then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the 9th Circuit appeals court to revisit their previous ruling.

This time, the three-judge panel ruled in a 2-1 opinion that Alaska’s contribution limit of $500 from an individual to a political candidate, and the contribution limit of $500 from an individual to an election-related group, are unconstitutional.

In the opinion, the panel wrote that the state failed to meet the burden of showing that its campaign contribution limit for individuals was “closely” or narrowly drawn. To withstand constitutional scrutiny, there has to be an important state interest to avoid corruption or the appearance of it, said Robin Brena, counsel for the plaintiffs.

“And it has to be narrowly drawn so it doesn’t cause harm to free speech in general,” he said. “Those are the constitutional standards.”

The panel determined that the $500 limit from individuals to candidates “significantly” restricted the funds available to political challengers running against incumbents. It also found the “already-low limit” had not been adjusted for inflation.

“Moreover, the panel held that Alaska had not established a special justification for such a low limit, noting that the record contained no indication that corruption or its appearance was more serious in Alaska than in other states,” the opinion states.

“Similarly, Alaska had not met its burden of showing that the $500 individual-to-group limit was closely drawn to restrict contributors from circumventing the individual-to candidate limit,” the opinion continued. “Like the individual-to-candidate limit, it was not adjusted for inflation, and it was lower than limits in other states. In any event, the panel found that because the statute was poorly tailored to the Government’s interest in preventing circumvention of the base limits, it impermissibly restricted participation in the political process.”

The appeals court panel, in its opinion on Friday, upheld its previous position on two other provisions: that the state’s contribution limit of $3,000 for total out-of-state contributions is unconstitutional, but upholding as constitutional the contribution limit of $5,000 from a political party to a municipal candidate.

“Finally, as it did in its prior opinion, the panel reversed on Alaska’s nonresident aggregate limit, which bars a candidate from accepting more than $3,000 per year from individuals who are not residents of Alaska,” the opinion states. “Taking the district court’s evidentiary findings as true, the panel could not agree that the nonresident limit targeted quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. At most, the law aimed to curb perceived ‘undue influence’ of out-of-state contributors.”

The panel said that’s an interest that is no longer sufficient after the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case of 2010.

Brena said this outcome does not mean that no campaign contribution limits are possible in Alaska, just that the ones currently in place are not OK. He said he expects the Alaska Legislature may revisit the issue in the future, though they don’t have to.

“As a practical matter, one way that you can express your free speech is to give money to the candidate of your choice,” Brena said. “If you’re going to restrict it, you’ve gotta have a darn good reason to do it.”

Brena said this ruling should aid challenger candidates in what he called a lopsided system in which large independent expenditure groups can spend large amounts of money on a candidate, while those running against incumbents are “being starved” for funds.

“I think as a practical matter it means that the candidates, their voice will be louder because they will be better funded,” he said.

The Alaska Department of Law represented the defendants in the case, the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Department Spokesperson Grace Lee said via email that the department is reviewing the decision and will have a response next week.

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