9th Circuit Sees No Anti-Corruption Rationale for Limiting Contributions to Recall Campaigns


The Institute for Justice looks likely to win its challenge to the contribution limits imposed on recall campaigns in Washington state. I.J. is representing the Recall Dale Washam Committee, which tried to remove Pierce County's assessor-treasurer from office. The committee ran afoul of an $800 contribution cap by accepting the help of Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon, two Tacoma attorneys who did pro bono work for the recall campaign. Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the rule, finding that "the plaintiffs have satisfied their burden…to demonstrate that the contribution limit is likely an unconstitutional and harmful burden on the plaintiffs' rights of free speech under the First Amendment." The limit applies to in-kind contributions such as legal work as well as cash, making it impractical for grassroots groups with shoestring budgets to mount successful recall campaigns. In Washington recalls have to be based on charges of "malfeasance or misfeasance," as determined by a judge, meaning that litigation is necessary to get a recall measure on the ballot. The 9th Circuit rejected the state's argument that the limit on donations prevents corruption or the appearance of corruption, saying "neither the State nor amici [have] presented any evidence showing that contributions to recall committees in Washington raise the specter of corruption, and certainly not in this case." Bill Maurer, executive director of I.J.'s Washington chapter, comments:

Washington's law was the ultimate incumbent protection scheme: It made it impossible to recall the most abusive elected officials. Today's decision clearly recognizes that this law improperly interferes with the ability of Pierce County citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights in recall campaigns. Now we are one step closer to ensuring that all Washingtonians wishing to exercise the right of recall will not be hampered by artificial restrictions on their speech.