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Judge challenges attorneys as campaign finance trial wraps up

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 3, 2016

A weeklong trial in a lawsuit challenging the state's campaign contribution limits came to a close Tuesday, with U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess asking probing questions of attorneys defending the state's limits on nonresident contributions and expressing some concern limits set at least a decade ago haven't risen with inflation.

Kevin Clarkson, attorney for the plaintiffs who say their free-speech rights are hurt by the donation caps, said in his closing arguments the state never overcame a fundamental hurdle, proving the $500 maximum a person can give to a candidate per year is the proper amount to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, as the law intends.

Proving why that number is correct is the state's "first step," but the state never met that obligation, he asserted.

The constitutional challenge — brought in November by Alaska Republican Party District 18, Alaskans Aaron Downing and Jim Crawford and Wisconsin resident David Thompson — challenges the $500 limit and three other contribution caps. The Alaska Public Offices Commission is named as the defendant.

The case was tried without a jury. Burgess did not give a timeline for when he would issue a decision, but one is not expected for at least a month. A decision to loosen the limits could reshape this year's legislative races by increasing the amount contributors can donate to candidates.

State attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh said Clarkson's view of the law is wrong. The state doesn't need to show a certain amount is perfect. It does need to ensure the limits allow candidates to raise enough money to run effective campaigns while reducing the potential for the appearance of corruption or actual corruption.

The state's limits also protect the free-speech rights of candidates and contributors, she said.

During attorneys' closing arguments, Burgess asked several questions related to the $3,000 total contribution limit a state House candidate can accept from nonresidents — another area the plaintiffs were challenging. Burgess noted few candidates meet their nonresident caps and asked Paton-Walsh whether the state had objective evidence showing the problems the state sought to prevent with the limits.

Paton-Walsh pointed to the state's long history of Outside corporations seeking to influence Alaska politics. She also noted Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a witness for the plaintiffs, had earlier in the trial said he supported nonresident limits.

Burgess didn't seem satisfied, saying there didn't appear to be "legitimate" evidence.

In her closing argument, Paton-Walsh also spelled out of some of the ways Alaska is "peculiarly vulnerable to corruption," including its small population with limited oversight of the political process, a small Legislature in which only 10 senators can stop any piece of legislation, and a huge reliance on a single industry, petroleum, to provide state income.

Burgess argued with Clarkson about what actions amount to corruption, or the appearance of it.

Clarkson had argued the state presented no evidence a $1,000 limit, the individual contribution cap in Alaska for 26 years, is any more corrupt than the current limit of $500, an amount set most recently by the voters in 2006.

But Burgess pointed out current or former politicians who came before him as witnesses in the case presented examples of times they felt pressured by contributors to vote a certain way when the limits were higher.

Burgess also suggested he believes the $500 contribution limit, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2006, isn't sacrosanct. "Just because the people in Alaska decided that's what they wanted doesn't make it constitutional," he said.

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