Group picks Alaska to challenge unlimited campaign donations
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A national group is focusing on Alaska in a bid to get the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit a 2010 decision that upended how campaigns are run in this country.
The court decision paved the way for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures, and in Alaska, was viewed by state officials as likely rendering several provisions of law prohibiting or limiting certain contributions unconstitutional.
Washington, D.C.-based Equal Citizens wants to put that interpretation to the test but it could face an uphill battle.
Equal Citizens is supporting complaints that have been filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission over contributions made in the 2016 election to independent groups that backed candidates to the Alaska Legislature. One group supported a Republican and the other leaned toward Democrats during the general election.
The complaints contend that state law would cap contributions individuals or other groups could contribute to $500 and $1,000 a year, respectively, but that the law was flouted. Individual contributions topped $2,000 in some cases, with special interest and union organizations contributing about $50,000 or more, the complaints allege.
Since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, states and localities have so far had no success using the courts in attempts to impose limits on spending by corporations or labor unions, said election law expert Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine.
The legal effort in Alaska “is the next step, the question of contributions by individuals, corporations, labor unions through independent expenditure committees, these so-called super PACs,” he said.
He described the attempt as a long shot because if it eventually reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, justices under the current court makeup “would be very likely to hold that independent expenditure committees may take unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations and labor unions.”
Staff for the Alaska Public Offices Commission has concluded the complaints should be rejected. If the commission agrees, the matter can be appealed to state court.
Heather Hebdon, the commission’s executive director, said the allegations involve activities approved by the commission in a 2012 advisory opinion. The opinion acknowledges constitutional concerns with some state contribution caps following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision and concluded that an independent expenditure group can obtain contributions in unlimited amounts.
“We have not enforced contribution limits as they pertain to an independent expenditure group since this advisory opinion was issued in 2012,” Hebdon said.
Lawrence Lessig, founder of Equal Citizens, said his group believes the commission has sided with “what is a kind of conventional view among lawyers” that his group believes is incorrect.
“What we’re trying to seek is clarification that the limits can be enforced,” he said.
Equal Citizens zeroed in on Alaska, in part, because the state has a procedure in place that allows citizens “to force the state to explain why it’s not enforcing its own law,” he said.
The complaints were filed by three Alaska residents, including Jim Barnett of Anchorage, who said he and Lessig corresponded after the 2016 campaign.
Barnett called the current campaign finance landscape “a real undercutting of our democracy.”
In 2010, then-Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan concluded that under the Supreme Court decision, “Alaska may not prohibit political speech by corporations and labor unions altogether.” He said laws prohibiting independent expenditures by those groups in candidate elections were likely unconstitutional.
In 2014, Sullivan, a Republican, ran for U.S. Senate against the Democratic incumbent, Mark Begich, in what became the most expensive race in Alaska history.
Both candidates raised millions of dollars and tens of millions were spent by outside interest groups in a race Sullivan ultimately won.