Has the Supreme Court already held SLO City’s Low Campaign Contribution Limits Unconstitutional?
February 8, 2014
OPINION By STEW JENKINS
In 1974, the City of San Luis Obispo limited campaign contribution for mayor and council candidates to $100. This is equivalent to $465 in today’s dollars, but the limit has only been raised once: now at $200. Anyone following the U.S. Supreme Court knows that Citizen’s United has unleashed independent “Super-Pacs” to spend unlimited funds to support or oppose candidates.
The Supreme Court has since struck down attempts by Montana to defend bans on corporate contributions. While so far upholding most laws limiting contributions directly to candidates, in the 2006 case of Randall v. Sorrell, 126 S.Ct. 2479, the high court struck down a Vermont statute which limited candidate contributions for different offices to $200, $300 and $400 under the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Bryer noted that no Supreme Court decision had ever held a limit lower than $1,075 on contributions to be lawful; and criticized the Vermont law for having no cost of living feature to keep pace with changing economics. The City of San Luis Obispo actually has a larger population than the district to which the $200 Vermont contribution limit applied.
Supreme Court Justices have obviously been troubled by the tension between assuring that campaigns and public policy are free from corrupting influences of moneyed interests and campaign bundlers on the one hand, and on the other hand the rights of free speech, press and association necessary to a functioning democratic republic. The Court is scheduled soon to decide McCutchen v. Federal Elections Commission which has directly challenged the constitutionality of contribution limits.
On February 4th the San Luis Obispo City Council commenced the process to re-adopt its campaign finance limits, raising it from $200 to $300; still well under the level already stricken by the high court in Randall v. Sorrell. Unfortunately, the City Council declined to consider a replacement program to assure integrity in elections free from the appearance of corruption. This could be accomplished by establishing a voluntary public campaign financing ordinance similar to those that have been successfully built in a few other states and municipalities. Though the Supreme Court has pruned a few parts off these relatively new successful public campaign financing structures, most of their working parts have survived court challenges. Officeholders, candidates and the public are freed from the pay-to-play, access advantages, and undeserved clout that lobbyists and contribution blunders have today.
With the trend in the law removing limits on campaign contributions, prudent city leadership is needed. The council has left the city in the situation where any tax payer, voter, potential contributor, or potential candidate is already in a position to sue to have this ordinance declared unconstitutional and enjoined — leaving future elections for council a financial free for all. It is time our city looked at better, constitutional, public campaign financing alternatives that are available to safeguard our city’s elections.
Stew Jenkins has practiced law in San Luis Obispo since 1978.