JUNEAU — The state’s decision to not seek further legal review of a split court ruling that struck down several campaign contribution caps in Alaska was criticized Wednesday by a state lawmaker who said the state should have pressed forward with a legal fight.
The case was heard by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The dissent in the case was strong, said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has an obligation to defend the laws of the state, he said.
“He doesn’t get to pick and choose which laws he wants to defend and not defend,” Wielechowski said, adding that he was not making a distinction between Dunleavy and Attorney General Treg Taylor, a Dunleavy appointee who was confirmed by lawmakers.
Grace Lee, a state Department of Law spokeswoman, said in an email Tuesday that the department, led by Taylor, would not seek further review of the decision by the appeals court panel. Lee said this followed “a thorough evaluation of the law, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and the former and recent 9th Circuit decisions.”
Jeff Turner, a Dunleavy spokesperson, said Taylor decided the ruling by the appeals court panel was “legally sound” and Dunleavy “agreed with his decision to not appeal.”
“The legislature can introduce and pass legislation setting a new campaign contribution limit, that does not run afoul of the Ninth Circuit decision, when it reconvenes in January,” Turner said by email.
A divided federal appeals court panel in late July struck down a $500-a-year limit on what an individual can give a candidate. It also struck down a $500-a-year limit on individual contributions to non-party groups and a $3,000-a-year cap on total nonresident donations a candidate for office like state House can raise.
Lee on Wednesday said it’s the department’s position “that the non-resident limits are all invalid under the court’s reasoning.” State law has limited nonresident contribution to $5,000 a year for state Senate candidates and $20,000 a year for those running for governor or lieutenant governor.
Heather Hebdon, executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, which enforces state campaign finance rules, said she did not have a firm response yet to provide.
The case dates to 2015 and was brought against the commission by David Thompson, Aaron Downing and Jim Crawford.
The lawsuit said the plaintiffs at the time would have contributed more if allowed in state and local races to their preferred candidates, who were Republican-aligned.
Crawford also said he would have given more if allowed to the Alaska Miners Association Political Action Committee. Thompson, from Wisconsin, said he wanted to contribute to his brother-in-law, then-Rep. Wes Keller, but couldn’t because Keller had reached his out-of-state donor cap, according to the original complaint.
A federal judge in 2016 sided with the state, and an appeals court panel agreed with the findings, except on the nonresident piece. The U.S. Supreme Court later sent the matter back to the appeals court to re-evaluate the $500 caps in light of a prior ruling in a Vermont case.
That led to the July decision.
Lee said the appeals court panel indicated the $500 campaign contribution limit “would not be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court for multiple reasons, including reasons beyond dispute, such as the lack of an inflation adjustment” in state law.
Lee said it was determined the “resources and risks” to pursue further review by a larger appeals court panel “are too great.”
“We encourage the legislature to address this issue and determine what limits would be appropriate based on current constitutional precedent,” she said in a statement.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states imposed no contribution limits on individual donors as of 2019, the most recent year for which they had information.
Next year’s elections in Alaska feature races for governor and state House and Senate seats.
Jim Lottsfeldt, a political strategist, said it “wouldn’t be the worst thing” if the court’s actions stood. He noted Oregon doesn’t have contribution limits and that contributions are disclosed.
If lawmakers do not want to impose new limits, they should require immediate reporting of large contributions, he said.
Wielechowski said transparency is important but so are limits.
He questioned whether lawmakers would support imposing new restrictions at this time, “until you see a public uprising over this.” He said he’s not even sure the public has really been paying attention to the issue.