With the 2012 election in full swing, a judge has issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of state limits on financial contributions to be used in federal campaigns and for independent expenditures in state races.
The judge left intact limits on contributions to candidates for state office and to groups intending to spend money on state races in coordination with candidates. Still, the ruling, unless overturned, will likely mean more money raised and spent on state and federal races in New Mexico this year.
U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson’s ruling leaves many types of contribution limits in state law unenforceable, at least for now. For example, the state Republican Party, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Johnson’s ruling, will be able to accept donations of unlimited size from the Republican National Committee to help candidates seeking federal office. Of course, the state Democratic Party will also be able to take unlimited contributions from the Democratic National Committee.
And individuals such as plaintiffs Mark Veteto and Howard Bohlander will be able to contribute unlimited amounts to political groups for use in state and federal races, as long as there’s no coordination between those groups and candidates on the use of those funds.
The contribution-limits law, which took effect at the conclusion of the 2010 election cycle, capped such donations at $5,000. The preliminary injunction is not a definitive ruling tossing out those limits, but it is a temporary stay against their enforcement based on findings that the plaintiffs were likely to be successful in their challenge to those limits, that they faced irreparable damage if the injunction wasn’t granted, and that the injunction serves the public interest.
Johnson accepted the argument that the 2012 election cycle is underway, so immediate action was necessary.
“Considering that the 2012 election cycle is in full swing and considering that the desired activities of Plaintiffs involve political free speech and association rights during an election year, this Preliminary Injunction shall remain in effect pending appeal unless stayed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals,” he wrote in his Thursday ruling, which you can read here.
Issue of ‘quid pro quo corruption’ at heart of ruling
The issue of cooperation between candidates and groups accepting contributions was the primary factor in Johnson’s ruling. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has recently held “that the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof is the only interest strong enough to justify contribution limits.” That’s why he upheld the state limits on contributions that could be used in state races in coordination with candidates.
But it’s also why he issued an injunction against enforcement of the limits on contributions to be used for independent expenditures. The Supreme Court has ruled in the Citizens United case that, in Johnson’s words, “independent expenditures do not implicate the anti-corruption interest” because of the lack of coordination with candidates. Johnson’s injunction states that New Mexico “does not have an anti-corruption interest capable of justifying contribution limits if those contributions are to be used exclusively for independent expenditures.”
Among the plaintiffs in the GOP’s lawsuit are two right-leaning political action committees that say they intend to solicit and accept contributions of greater than $5,000 to be used for independent expenditures.
Johnson’s decision isn’t surprising. When the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in October, the director of Common Cause New Mexico told NMPolitics.net that they would likely prevail in their challenge to limits on donations for independent expenditures because of the Citizens United ruling.
In issuing his injunction against the state limits on contributions to be used in federal campaigns, Johnson noted the defendants’ concession that federal law trumps state law.
‘Freedom of speech’ central to GOP’s argument
When the GOP and others filed the lawsuit in October, the state GOP’s executive director said the move was intended “to protect New Mexicans’ right to freedom of speech.”
The law in question was enacted in 2009 and took effect following the 2010 election. It limits contributions to non-statewide candidates for office to $2,300 per election from any entity except a political committee, which can give $5,000 to non-statewide candidates. It limits contributions to statewide candidates for office, political action committees and political parties to $5,000 per election from individuals and groups.
The GOP lawsuit challenged the limits on several points, but the underlying issue – freedom of speech – came largely in response to the Citizens United decision. More than once the lawsuit claimed a provision in the law is “unconstitutional because it burdens and chills First Amendment speech and associational rights without adequate justification and is not properly tailored, thereby failing constitutional scrutiny.”
In October, Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque and the sponsor of the contribution-limits law, said if the lawsuit was successful it would “open the floodgates to special interest cash from outside New Mexico and dwarf the effect of small donors to local campaigns.”
That concern has led Common Cause and others to express concern about the possibility of New Mexico being inundated with election spending this year and to call for reform.