Judge hears arguments as GOP supporters try to loosen campaign donation limits

A federal judge on Monday heard the first arguments in a case that challenges the state's limits on donations to political candidates and groups, setting the stage for a seven-day trial set to begin later this month.

The lawsuit against the state — brought by three supporters of Republican candidates and an Anchorage Republican district committee — has its roots in recent federal cases that have equated free speech with campaign contributions.

The Alaska Republican Party District 18 in Anchorage and the three individual plaintiffs want U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess to strike down annual limits on contributions from political parties and nonresidents, as well as the $500 annual limit that individuals can make to candidates and to groups other than political parties.

The trial is set to begin April 25 in Anchorage.

The plaintiffs' arguments are based on key federal decisions in recent years, including the 2010 Citizens United decision that invalidated limits on corporate and union spending and the 2014 McCutcheon case that struck down a $120,000 limit on individuals' total contributions to candidates and political parties during two-year election cycles.

Burgess dealt with limited questions in the case on Monday. The plaintiffs asked Burgess to decide — without a trial — to remove limits on the total annual contributions that candidates for office in Alaska can accept from nonresidents.

That challenge deals with an argument brought by plaintiff David Thompson, a Wisconsin resident, who was unable to contribute to the campaign of his brother-in-law, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, in 2015. Thompson could not do so because Keller had already received the maximum amount of nonresident contributions — $3,000 — that state House candidates are legally allowed to accept under state law, said private attorney Kevin Clarkson, arguing on the plaintiff's behalf.

Clarkson said the limits a candidate may receive from out-of-state residents are unconstitutional and discriminate against U.S. residents living outside Alaska. The goal of contribution limits needs to be "preventing quid pro corruption," essentially bribery, and the appearance of it, said Clarkson, with law firm Brena, Bell and Clarkson.

Clarkson said there is no connection between residency and corruption, or the appearance of it.

"Simply because I'm from Wisconsin doesn't mean my contribution is more corrupt than someone's contribution from Anchorage," he said. "In this case, David Thompson didn't get to give a penny to Wes Keller."

The state argues that the limits are an important measure to prevent people outside Alaska from trying to sway political discussions, an issue that's particularly important for small states. In briefs, state attorneys have pointed to a history of resource-extraction companies from outside the state that have attempted to sway Alaska politicians.

"Indeed, Alaska's history is replete with examples of attempts to exert outside influence and control over Alaskan politics to promote outside interests — from the Alaska syndicate owners of the Kennecott-Bonanza mine through the Seattle fishing industry's opposition to statehood to recent oil industry promotion of production tax cuts," the state argues in one filing.

Alaska is allowed to legally limit non-Alaskan participation in the political process for the same reason it can stop nonresidents from voting — they aren't members of the state's self-governing political community, the filing said.

Despite that narrow restriction, those who live outside Alaska can engage in several other forms of free speech to support their preferred candidate, including taking out TV or newspaper ads, writing letters to the editor or donating to groups that support that candidate, the state argued.

"Nonresidents can still put out whatever message they want," said Laura Fox, assistant attorney general who presented arguments for the state on Monday.

Clarkson said that in the wake of the McCutcheon decision, several states have struck down total limits on contributions. He said total contribution limits for nonresidents haven't been challenged elsewhere because they only exist in two states – Alaska and Hawaii.

Fox argued that the McCutcheon decision did not mean that all aggregate limits are unconstitutional. The decision effectively allowed a person to give to an unlimited number of candidates for federal office, political parties and political action committees.

"We're saying it's a different issue" because McCutcheon didn't deal with the kind of limit at issue in Alaska, said Fox.

Burgess said he will decide that question soon, as well as another raised Monday — how many contribution limits the plaintiffs should be able to challenge.

Regarding nonresident contribution limits, the state contends that the plaintiffs have only shown injury in one area, the $3,000 nonresident limit a House or municipal candidate may accept. The plaintiffs don't have the right to challenge other nonresident limits, namely, the $5,000 total contribution limit a state senator may accept and the $20,000 limit governor and lieutenant governor candidates can accept, Fox argued.

Similarly, Fox also argued that the plaintiffs should not be allowed to challenge broad candidate contribution limits that apply to a political party and its subdivisions.

In the lawsuit before Burgess, Republican District 18 argued that it could not contribute to Anchorage mayoral candidate Amy Demboski's campaign in 2015 because of a $5,000 total annual limit that applies to political parties and subdivisions giving to a municipal candidate.

Fox on Monday argued that the Republican plaintiffs shouldn't be allowed to challenge the $10,000 limit for political parties giving to a House candidate, the $15,000 limit for a Senate candidate and the $100,000 limit for a governor or lieutenant governor candidate.

Clarkson replied that the plaintiffs aren't fighting individual contribution limits, but an overarching "statutory scheme" that limits a broad class of people or groups. The limits for the Alaska Republican Party apply not just to districts, but other subdivisions of the party such as the Midnight Sun Republican Women, the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women, and others.

"We're arguing they shouldn't be lumping it all together, but each unit and subunit should be allowed to give individually," he said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.