Politics

Federal court ruling likely allows unlimited cash in Alaska political campaigns

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned three of Alaska’s main limits on campaign contributions in a major decision on Friday.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission declined to comment on the ruling, saying state attorneys are still examining it, but without additional action, Americans likely will be able to donate unlimited amounts of money directly to Alaska politicians campaigning for office.

“Until the Legislature and governor take action, there are largely no limits,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which argued in support of the state’s restrictions.

“I think it’s a good day for free speech,” said Anchorage attorney Robin Brena, who represented the plaintiffs.

Friday’s ruling affects four rules. It upheld a $5,000 limit on the amount of money a political party can give to a municipal candidate, but it overturned three others:

• A $500 per-year limit on the amount of money an Alaskan can contribute to a particular candidate;

• A $500 per-year limit on contributions to a particular political group;

• A $3,000 limit on the amount of money a candidate can accept from all out-of-state donors combined in a given year.

Those limits were imposed in a 2006 ballot measure that passed with the support of 73% of voters. It applied only to candidates in state and local elections, not those seeking federal office.

Friday’s decision came after almost six years of arguments that began when three Republicans sued, challenging the limits.

Most were upheld in a 2016 Alaska District Court Decision and in a 2018 appeal to the 9th Circuit, but in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling and told the 9th Circuit to reconsider.

It did, and on Friday, a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 against the restrictions. The ruling suggests that higher limits, indexed to inflation, might pass legal muster, said Weiner and attorney Scott Kendall, who wrote campaign finance disclosure rules in last year’s Ballot Measure 2. That measure requires additional disclosure of some indirect campaign contributions but did not change the amount of any limits.

Kendall was uninvolved in the case but said it is major news for anyone concerned about money in politics.

“I really think the Ninth Circuit said this law is gone. I think there has to be something put in place to to replace it,” he said.

Because the case has already been heard by the Supreme Court, Brena said he believes an appeal is unlikely to succeed, but Weiner noted that one 9th Circuit judge dissented, and if the case is heard by a larger panel of 9th circuit judges, the result could change.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United already allows unlimited contributions to third-party groups forbidden from coordinating with campaigns. Brena said Friday’s ruling “rebalances” things.

“What this does is, it gives the candidate and their campaign an opportunity to be heard in the din, in the conversation, so it’s not just massive, well-financed independent expenditure groups that have special interests, dominating the conversation,” he said.

Kendall disagreed with that interpretation.

“There’s a very different flavor to giving to an (independent expenditure group) versus being able to go to a candidate as an individual and saying, ‘I can subsidize your entire campaign. Here’s a check for $200,000,’” he said. “I think that is a startling and disturbing state of affairs if they don’t fix it.”

Correction: The court upheld a $5,000 limit on contributions from political parties to municipal candidates only. It did not address parties’ contributions to non-municipal candidates. The initial version of this article was incorrect.

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