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Judge Prunes San Diego’s Campaign-Finance Laws

(CN) - A federal judge in San Diego struck down several provisions of the city's campaign-finance laws, including a $500 cap on donations to independent expenditure committees and a ban on contributions from political parties.

A group of city businesses and organizations, including Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. and the San Diego County Republican Party, challenged the city's law on First Amendment grounds, claiming it stifled their freedoms of speech and association.

U.S District Chief Judge Irma Gonzalez relied heavily on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, which rejected a ban on corporate political contributions.

Gonzalez ruled that San Diego can't ban candidates from accepting donations from political parties, or from accounts that belong to those parties.

The judge also tossed the $500 cap on contributions to independent expenditure committees, saying the city "has not put forth sufficient evidence to justify its limitation."

The city claimed the cap was needed to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. It also argued that its ban on corporate contributions would prevent people from circumventing contribution limits through sham organizations. But the plaintiffs cited Citizens United in arguing that the city can't ban corporate political speech.

Judge Gonzalez accepted the city's argument, saying San Diego's limit on corporate expenditures "is not, as plaintiffs argue, an 'outright ban on corporate speech.'" Individual members of corporations are free to make their own contributions, she noted.

One of the plaintiffs, Phil Thalheimer, claimed he was prevented from running for city council due to the city's time restrictions on campaign contributions: He can't solicit or accept contributions more than a year before the primary. He said this provision blocked him from raising the money needed to challenge the incumbent.

Gonzalez agreed that Thalheimer should be able to use his own money to fund his campaign before the 12-month window, but upheld the general time restriction for outside donations.

"Plaintiffs provide no evidence that the 12-month window prevents challengers from amassing the resources necessary to mount effective campaigns against incumbents," the judge wrote.

Gonzalez enjoined most of the challenged campaign-finance provisions, saying the injunction "shall remain in full force and effect until further order of the court."


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