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Courts rule on state campaign laws

Wed., Oct. 13, 2010

Donor disclosures and money limits at issue

Federal courts weighed in twice Tuesday on Washington state’s campaign finance laws, saying disclosure laws don’t violate First Amendment protections for free speech and leaving in place a cap on campaign contributions between now and the election.

The U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request to lift the cap, which has been ruled unconstitutional by a trial judge. The state is appealing that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed to leave the limit in place through the end of this election season.

Family PAC, a political group that opposed the expansion of domestic partnership rights for gay couples through a ballot measure last year, challenged the state law that limits contributions from a single source to $5,000 in the final three weeks of an initiative or referendum campaign. Tuesday marked the start of that three-week period.

In a separate case, the appeals court rejected a challenge to state laws requiring that political committees reveal the names of donors. Human Life of Washington, which opposed a 2008 ballot measure on assisted suicide, didn’t want to reveal its donors.

The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that disclosure requirements for political committees, independent expenditures, and political advertising were constitutional.

“There is a substantial relationship between Washington State’s interest in informing the electorate and the definitions and disclosure requirements it employs to advance that interest,” they wrote.

Human Life had argued it shouldn’t have to register with the state as a political action committee, because it wanted to sponsor ads about the issue of assisted suicide, not ads explicitly about Initiative 1000, the “Death with Dignity” initiative that was on the November 2008 ballot. I-1000 was passed by nearly 60 percent of voters and took effect in March 2009. It allows terminally ill people to obtain lethal prescription drugs for ending their own lives.

“Access to reliable information becomes even more important as more speakers, more speech and thus more spending enter the marketplace, which is precisely what has occurred in recent years,” the three-judge panel wrote. “Like campaigns for elected office, ballot initiatives are the subject of intense debate and, accordingly, greater expenditures to ensure that messages reach voters.”



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