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Appeals court ruling mixed on Alaska campaign finance laws

November 27, 2018

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A divided federal appeals court panel ruled Tuesday that Alaska’s cap on total contributions that candidates can receive from nonresidents is unconstitutional.

However, the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld other campaign contribution limits that it said were tailored to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.

The case brought by three individuals and an Alaska Republican Party district challenged elements of state campaign finance law.

An attorney for the plaintiffs did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, in a statement, expressed disappointment that the court struck down limits on nonresident contributions but said she was pleased with the rest of the ruling. Her agency said it was reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps.

The appeals court panel sided with a lower court in upholding limits on contributions made by individuals to candidates and to groups that are not political parties. They also upheld limits on the total amount a political party can give municipal candidates.

The judges split on nonresident contributions. The majority found the aggregate limit on what candidates can get from nonresidents violates the First Amendment. The panel reversed the lower court on that issue.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including the Citizens United case, the opinion says states cannot simply go after “undue influence” in politics but must show that any contribution limits fight potential corruption.

The Citizens United case paved the way for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas, in a partial dissent, said the cap on aggregate nonresident contributions is justified.

State law bars candidates from soliciting or accepting contributions from individuals who are not residents unless those contributions fall within certain limits. Candidates for state representative, for example, cannot accept more than $3,000 total in a calendar year from nonresidents.

A plaintiff in the case, David Thompson, is a brother-in-law of former state Rep. Wes Keller. The ruling said Thompson sent Keller $100 for his campaign in 2015 but had his check returned because Keller’s campaign reached its $3,000 limit. Thompson is from Wisconsin.

“Alaska fails to show why an out-of-state individual’s early contribution is not corrupting, whereas a later individual’s contribution — i.e., a contribution made after the candidate has already amassed $3,000 in out-of-state funds — is corrupting,” the opinion states.

The case does not address contributions to ballot groups or so-called independent expenditure groups, which the executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission said are not subject to the contribution limits.

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