High Court Fires at Alaska Campaign-Finance Law

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court ordered the Ninth Circuit on Monday to take another look at Alaska’s $500 annual cap on individual donations to candidates.

Alaska residents David Thompson, Aaron Downing and Jim Crawford initiated the court challenge in 2015 after maxing out contributions to the candidates of their choice.

Though the plaintiffs claimed the cap violated their First Amendment, a federal judge upheld all the challenged provisions after a bench trial and the Ninth Circuit affirmed last year.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that determination summarily, noting in an unsigned opinion that the Ninth Circuit ignored precedent from the 2006 case Randall v. Sorrell, which involved a similar cap in Vermont.

The majority ruled in Randall that the state’s failure to adjust for inflation “means that limits which are already suspiciously low” will “almost inevitably become too low over time.” 

“In Randall, we identified several ‘danger signs’ about Vermont’s law that warranted closer review,” today’s opinion states. “Alaska’s limit on campaign contributions shares some of those characteristics.”

One example the noted was that the state has not adjusted its contribution cap for inflation.

“Alaska’s $500 contribution limit is the same as it was 23 years ago, in 1996,” the court wrote. 

The lowest campaign contribution the Supreme Court has upheld was that of $1,075 per two-year election cycle for Missouri state auditor candidates. This ruling occurred in 1998 with the case Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government.

Today’s ruling emphasizes that the limit would equate to roughly $1,600 in today’s dollars, and that Alaska’s $1,000 maximum comparable contribution over a two-year period would be less than two-thirds of that limit.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted separately that she does not oppose remanding the Alaska case, but that there could be a potential issue in applying the Randall precedent.

“Alaska has the second smallest legislature in the country and derives approximately 90 percent of its revenues from one economic sector — the oil and gas industry,” Ginsburg wrote. “As the District Court suggested, these characteristics make Alaska ‘highly, if not uniquely, vulnerable to corruption in politics and government.’”

Kirkland & Ellis attorney Paul Clement represents Thompson and the other challengers.

Alaska is represented by Laura Fox with the state Department of Law.

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