Federal judge lifts Alaska’s ‘soft money’ ban

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

A federal judge further weakened Alaska’s campaign-finance law last week after he determined that statutes forbidding corporations and labor unions from contributing to political parties violate the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge James Singleton ruled that corporations and unions have a constitutional right to give unlimited donations to political parties, provided such dollars aren’t used for specific candidates. These donations, used for party-building and recruiting efforts, are often described as “soft money.”

Singleton’s June 11 ruling struck down a section of Alaska’s 1997 political contributions law that barred corporations, unions and other businesses from contributing any money to political candidates or parties.

The law, part of an extensive campaign-finance reform effort stretching back to 1996, restricted contributions to any candidate to $500 each year, banned contributions by lobbyists except to candidates in the lobbyists’ home district; banned corporate and labor union donations; and limited out-of-state contributions.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Republican and Libertarian parties have attacked the law, claiming it unconstitutionally restricts political speech and assemblies.

But state Attorney General Bruce Botelho has actively defended the 4-year-old statutes, characterizing them as a shield against political corruption.

Martin Schultz, assistant attorney general, said the state doesn’t make distinctions between “soft money” and “hard money.” “Hard money” describes donations given directly to candidates.

“Political parties exist to elect candidates, so any contribution you make is basically used directly or indirectly to elect candidates,” Schultz said in a telephone interview. “Basically, it’s an illusion to say that some money is used to elect candidates and some isn’t.”

On April 10, Singleton struck down limits on how much money can be contributed for non-candidate activities and how much time a person may volunteer to a political party. He hesitated to extend that protection to all non-candidate donations and activities.

But with his June 11 decision, he did.

Singleton, in both decisions, noted that while the U.S. Supreme Court in the guiding case of Buckley v. Valeo recognized a government interest in curbing corruption in elections, no court since has determined that such corruption exists when money is donated to political parties for non-candidate activities.

The decisions came in response to challenges from Kenneth Jacobus, attorney for the state Republican Party; Wayne Ross, a former Republican candidate for governor; and Libertarian Scott Kohlhaas. The two rulings remove most restrictions on donations to political parties. One restriction that remains places a $5,000 limit on contributions from an individual to a party in support of candidates.

Jacobus, who asked the court to amend its April decision to protect corporate and union donations, praised Singleton’s decision. He said political parties need to focus on issues and elections and not on fund-raising matters. He’s not sure why the state continues to support what he calls a restrictive law.

“I don’t understand why they are so anxious to prevent people from exercising their right to free speech and their ability to participate in political discussions,” Jacobus said in a telephone interview. “I just don’t get it.

“I suspect if the parties are sharp they are already approaching corporations and unions,” he added.

Botelho last week reiterated the state’s intention to appeal both of Singleton’s rulings to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tags: , , ,