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Federal judge blocks two campaign finance reforms in Illinois

The Illinois General Assembly had recently changed the election code in an attempt to prevent corruption in the state's judicial elections.

CHICAGO (CN) — Two recent changes to the Illinois Election Code will not be in play for the state's 2022 judicial elections, per a federal judge's ruling issued Friday night.

The first reform, enacted by the Illinois General Assembly in November 2021, bars non-Illinois residents from donating to state judicial candidates. The second, enacted in May 2022, prevents individual donors from giving more than $500,000 to independent expenditure committees — like Super PACs — involved in state judicial elections.

Retired Illinois attorney John Matthew Chancey, who currently lives in Texas, the conservative PAC Restoration of America, and its judicial election affiliate Fair Courts America challenged the changes. The 2021 reform barred Chancey from donating to several of his former colleagues in Illinois who are currently running for various state judicial seats, including in the Illinois Supreme Court. The 2022 reform, meanwhile, prevented Restoration from accepting more than $500,000 from unnamed wealthy donors who wished to contribute more. It also prevented Restoration from contributing more than $500,000 to Fair Courts America.

The trio sued the Illinois State Board of Elections and the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in August, asking the court to enjoin the reforms. They claimed both pieces of legislation infringed on their First Amendment rights.

Their lawsuit, filed by the conservative law firm Liberty Justice Center, argued that campaign finance contributions are a form of protected speech — one that the government can only restrict in the name of fighting quid pro quo corruption.

"The Supreme Court has recognized that contributions to political campaigns are protected speech, and thus a government must prove that restrictions on campaign contributions pass First Amendment scrutiny. Here, the two restrictions on contributions in judicial races cannot meet this test," Liberty Justice Center attorney Jeffrey Schwab wrote in the complaint.

To support the suit's claim, Schwab cited the 2011 case Wisconsin Right to Life State PAC v. Barland. In that case, the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit ordered a permanent injunction on a Wisconsin statute that capped political donations from individuals at $10,000 per year.

"The Seventh Circuit has held that limits on contributions to independent expenditure committees cannot further the government’s interest in the prevention of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption," Schwab wrote.

U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr., in his Friday evening memorandum granting Chancey, Restoration and Fair Courts America's motion for injunctions, opined that the conservative trio's arguments could plausibly succeed on their merits. The Barack Obama appointee also denied the Attorney General Office's motion to dismiss.

Tharp noted that the two reforms in question applied only to the state's judicial elections. The Illinois Election Code does not ban out-of-state donations to candidates in state legislative elections, for example, which Tharp said called the 2021 change into question.

"The State has failed to adequately explain at this stage how its complete prohibition of an entire source of money based solely on geography is a valid — i.e., closely drawn — method of protecting the public’s confidence in the integrity and independence of the state judiciary," Tharp wrote.

Tharp also waved away the attorney general's argument that “the ban on out-of-state contributions prevents a situation where outside donors dominate and control another state’s judiciary," saying that judiciary corruption is not defined by state lines.

"The State does not (and cannot) explain why money is more corrupting simply because its source is from outside the state, so the premise that the out-of-state ban on campaign contributions materially enhances the state judiciary’s appearance of integrity is entirely without foundation," Tharp wrote.

Addressing the 2022 reform, Tharp opined that there already existed mechanisms for judicial candidates to accept more than $500,000 from individual donors, mooting the statute's stated purpose.

"Illinois’ current framework ... does virtually nothing to mitigate the threat posed by large donations to [independent expenditure committees]," Tharp wrote. "Consider the hypothetical litigant who wants to donate a million dollars to support the candidacy of the judge presiding over his case; he would have myriad means to do so notwithstanding the IEC restriction. The contributor-litigant could, for example, donate up to the $500,000 limit to an IEC that makes independent expenditures in support of the judge and spend the other half on his own independent expenditures in support of the judge. Alternatively, the contributor-litigant could spend the whole million dollars on individual independent expenditures without involving a committee."

Tharp's ruling will prevent the two reforms from effecting the upcoming general elections on Nov. 8.

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