Federal judge strikes down Alaska’s ‘soft-money’ limits

Monday, April 23, 2001

For years, a portion of Kenneth Jacobus' legal work involved his pro-bono efforts as counsel for the Republican Party in Alaska.

But a warning came down from the state's Public Offices Commission that the Anchorage attorney's work for the party might be deemed an illegal contribution under a series of electoral-spending laws the state Legislature enacted in 1996.

One law, in part, limited the amount of services a professional, such as an accountant or a lawyer, could devote to a political party to $5,000 a year. Such a professional could offer more services, provided the party paid the prevailing rate.

“In a normal year, I would exceed that limit by the end of January,” Jacobus said with a laugh in a telephone interview.

And so he and two other men challenged the law, and on April 10 got a satisfactory decision from a U.S. District Court judge who said the state's limits on contributions to a political party violated the First Amendment.

But the battle isn't over yet.

Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho last week said the state plans to appeal the federal judge's decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Alaskans have made it clear that they want controls on the amount of money used in political campaigns, but the federal court in this case has made an exception for 'soft money,' ” Botelho said in a statement. “This exception allows unlimited donations to political parties for purposes not directly related to the nomination or election of candidates, such as party building activities, newsletters, promoting ballot issues, and issue advocacy.”

Under Alaska law, all campaign contributions by an individual to a political party are limited to $5,000. U.S. District Judge James Singleton in his decision found the limit to be valid when such donations are used directly in campaigns.

But he said limits on contributions for noncandidate activities and on how much time a person may volunteer with a political party offend the First Amendment.

“It is clear that restricting donations to political parties for purposes unrelated to nominating or electing candidates … significantly interferes with the protected rights of speech and association,” Singleton wrote in his 16-page decision.

Singleton 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 professionals volunteer their time for party-building efforts.

Singleton's decision comes as Congress attempts to overhaul the way Americans finance political campaigns. Earlier this month, the Senate passed the McCain-Feingold bill, which, in part, restricts the use of soft money by political parties.

In his decision, Singleton noted that while advocates for campaign-finance reform may have exposed problems with soft money elsewhere, no group has detailed such claims of corruption in Alaska.

“Even if they could, it would not appear that such incidents would meet tests established by the United States Supreme Court,” he wrote. “In any event, the court is considering a state statute not a federal statute that may never be enacted.”

The state, however, prevailed on a challenge to the state's ban on corporate contributions. Singleton wrote that both the Alaska and U.S. supreme courts have upheld such limits.

The federal case marks the latest salvo against the extensive campaign-finance reforms Alaska enacted in 1996. Those reforms restrict contributions to any candidate to $500 each year, ban contributions by lobbyists except to candidates in the lobbyist's home district, ban corporate and labor union donations, and limit out-of-state contributions.

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the laws in state court. But the challenge faltered before the Alaska Supreme Court, which upheld all of the restrictions.

Jacobus said such contribution limits force political parties to hone their attention to fundraising and elections. He said decisions like Singleton's could pave the way for better and more open opportunities for fundraising, enabling political parties to better educate the public about elections and political topics.

“Political parties' focus will be more on the issues, rather than electing people to office,” he said.

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