Is free speech a defense against corruption in California?
August 9, 2016
The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that votes cast by elected officials constitute protected free speech. In the decision, the state’s high court sided with former city council members who allegedly voted for a garbage hauling contract in exchange for campaign contributions from the contractor. [LA Times]
Alleging violations of a state conflict of interest law, the city of Montebello sued three of its former council members, as well as its former city manager. Following Monday’s ruling, the city’s lawsuit is at risk of being thrown out.
In a 5-2 decision, Justice Carol A. Corrigan stated votes cast by elected officials are protected by a state law aimed at combatting lawsuits that chill free speech. The law allows defendants to make a special motion to throw out such lawsuits at an early stage, Corrigan wrote in the ruling.
As a result of the ruling, the legal burden falls on Montebello to prove that it is probable the former city officials violated state law in their handling of the garbage contract. The garbage contract has since been rescinded.
Corrigan also stated it is not necessary to sue public officials in their personal capacities in order to challenge the propriety ofa government action. Citizens still have the right to sue the government entity itself, Corrigan wrote.
Justice Goodwin Liu, who wrote the dissenting opinion, stated that state and federal free speech guarantees doe not protect an elected official’s vote.
“The court’s contrary holding will make it harder to enforce civil laws against public corruption,” Liu wrote.
The lawsuit is now expected to return to an intermediate appellate court. If the city were to win the case, the former Montebello officials would have to give up the campaign contributions they received from the contractor.
Raul F. Salinas, who is representing Montebello, said he believes, if returned, the campaign contribution money would go to the city.