Has the Supreme Court already held SLO City’s Low Campaign Contribution Limits Unconstitutional?

February 8, 2014
Stew Jenkins

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.



I think that any campaign contribution limits inherently favor incumbents. Personally I don’t think there should be any limits as long as we have disclosure laws.

I do not believe that public financing is a good idea. If you can’ t raise adequate money to get your message across, maybe you just don’t really have the right organization, ideas, issues or name ID through community involvement to be electable. In a small community like SLO it is possible to walk every block to get your message out. There are so many community events here that a candidate could go to several events daily to meet people. With social media much more campaign work can be done at almost no cost if a candidate can be organized and on it.

It’s not ALL about the money, a lot of it is just hard work with limited resources and manpower in a very short time frame. It’s the ultimate business challenge. And did I mention your opponent’s propensity to take pot shots at your character for an overdue library book or some gaff taken out of context? It’s a rough and tumble arena. No wonder many people don’t want to run for office, but we sadly need bold leaders who have the courage to step up to the challenge and lead.The present city council is sorely lacking in such leadership and the results are disastrous: a bloated bureaucratic to the max government, excessive fees and fines, and $77 million in the bank and still searching for more money from beleaguered residents.

Kevin Rice

Politicians buying supporters is possibly more prevalent than the other way around. Inside conversations and sweetheart friendships remain the root of much misfeasance.

Campaign finance disclosure, the California Public Records Act, and the Brown Act are the public’s major tools to discover who is scratching whose back.

Lifting contribution limits is not a problem as long as disclosure allows the public to see who is making contributions, and to whom. Have a look at the County Supervisor campaign disclosure and you’ll see some very disturbing dollars coming into the hands of Caren Ray from numerous big time developers.


“Lifting contribution limits is not a problem as long as disclosure allows the public to see who is making contributions, and to whom.” Very interesting point of view, given your manipulation of the process that’s the subject of this article. If I’m not mistaken, you backed a number of weird things — like junking the city’s disclosure regulations (so, then, just how do we know who’s making contributions and to whom?) and keeping open candidates’ bank accounts after the election so they can become repositories for permanent collection of a slush fund (the city had required such accounts to be closed and zeroed out prior to the current revisions). Why don’t you tell readers here about your outsized influence in bringing about the undemocratic changes the city council just made?

Kevin Rice

In fact, you ARE grossly mistaken. Your accusations are beyond misinformed.

Candidate contributions $100+ will continue too be disclosed as always. Your notions of a “slush fund” are baseless. Such a fund is illegal under state law.

Furthermore, if i had any undemocratic influence (I certainly did not unless a letter is undemocratic), you need to be accusing Mayor Marx, Ashbaugh, Smith, and Christiansen of this charge as they all agreed with me by their votes.


Jim and Tom Copeland already purchased themselves a Mayor for San Luis Obispo years ago. Just because they didn’t pay her via campaign contributions doesn’t mean she hasn’t been bought and paid for all the same.


ad hominem / personal attack deleted.

Debate the facts and law, not the personal, certainly not from a anonymous account.

! or ? moderator@calcoastnews.com


Be the first on your block to buy a politician!


You don’t think politicians haven’t already been bought?