Arkansas Asks Panel to Toss Challenge to Campaign-Finance Law

ST. LOUIS (CN) – An attorney for the state of Arkansas argued before the Eighth Circuit on Thursday that a woman challenging the constitutionality of a state campaign donation law lacks standing to do so because her preferred candidate has not made an official campaign announcement.

The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, home of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via U.S. General Services Administration)

Peggy Jones filed a federal lawsuit over an Arkansas law prohibiting campaign donations for statewide offices more than two years before the election. Jones claims the law infringes on her First Amendment rights by preventing her to donate now to politicians she wants to support in the 2022 election cycle, namely state Senator Mark Johnson, R-Conway.

In June, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the law until its constitutionality could be decided. Arkansas then appealed to the St. Louis-based appellate court, prompting Moody to lift the injunction – allowing the law to remain in effect – until the Eighth Circuit ruled on Jones’ standing.

Brittany Edwards, arguing for the state, claimed the district court abused its discretion in granting the injunction. She told the panel that Jones lacked standing because Johnson had not officially announced his candidacy and that Arkansas had a compelling interest in eliminating campaign finance corruption.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Kelly asked Edwards what Arkansas’ definition of a candidate was.

Edwards responded by saying the state requires an affirmative action by the candidate. She said there was no public announcement in Johnson’s case, just a private conversation where he told Jones that he would run for office.

Kelly followed up by asking whether Jones would have given Johnson the money anyway if he wasn’t an official candidate and the election was still several years away.

“He could take that money, but at that point it wouldn’t be a political contribution because they are subject to certain requirements,” Edwards said. “At that point, it would be a gift.”

Current Arkansas law caps campaign donations at $2,700 for any individual to any individual candidate in an election cycle.

U.S. Circuit Judge David Stras asked how the blackout period in addition to the $2,700 limit prevented corruption.

“The way it would work in practice is if I was a candidate in 2020 and I’m running low on funds … I would either have to find more voters to give me money or ask voters who have already donated but haven’t reached their limit to give more,” Edwards said.

“Without this statute, I can simultaneously run for 2026” to get more funds, the attorney added.

Chad Pekron, who represented Jones, argued that whether Johnson publicly announced his candidacy is not the point.

“The conversation between Senator Johnson and Ms. Jones, that’s an affirmative step,” Pekron told the court. “This case is not hypothetical. It is not speculative. There is concrete evidence that Ms. Jones has suffered an injury as a result of the blackout period.”

He argued that the $2,700 should be enough to prevent campaign finance corruption without the blackout period.

“You could very easily prevent that by imposing a law preventing candidates from receiving more money for the next election they are running for,” before the current election cycle ends, Pekron said. “That would be more narrowly tailored.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy joined Kelly and Stras on the panel, which took the arguments under advisement. There is no timetable for a decision.

The law at issue was passed by Arkansas voters in 1996 as part of a package of campaign finance amendments designed to combat corruption.

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