Judge Strikes Down Kentucky Law Banning Lobbyist Gifts

COVINGTON, Ky. (CN) – Lobbyists will no longer be barred from giving gifts to Kentucky General Assembly members, after a federal judge struck down key provisions in the state’s ethics code, which had been considered one of the toughest in the country.

Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, state law prohibited Bluegrass State legislators from accepting “anything of value” from a lobbyist or their employer.

U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman wrote in his 35-page opinion that the law was too broad and vague.

“The scope of the gift ban is so broad that even a glass of water may be considered a violation,” Bertelsman wrote.

The judge added, “This ban extends even to the legislator’s spouse, and it is written so broadly that it would include private events hosted by a close friend, such as a family dinner or graduation party.”

The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2015 by lead plaintiff and State Sen. John Schickel, R-Union.

He was joined by David Watson, a libertarian who ran unsuccessfully for a Kentucky House seat in 2016, and Ken Moellman, a candidate who is running in 2018 for the office of Pendleton County judge/executive.

Schickel celebrated his victory by posting on his official Twitter account, “After 2 year fight in federal court judge Bertelsmann ruled Kys band [sic] on lobbyist contributing to campaigns unconstitutional let freedom ring!”

“The law was unconditional on its face,” Schickel told Courthouse News.  “The ruling is a great victory for freedom of speech.”

Bertelsman’s ruling also rolls back provisions that prevented a lobbyist from directly donating to a political campaign, finding that such donations are protected by the First Amendment.

“Influencing the government through the act of lobbying is at the heart of the political process. A law that specifically restricts what a lobbyist can and cannot do regarding a legislative member of government is a suppression on their freedom of association with those individuals,” Bertelsman wrote.

Political campaign finance restrictions were also eased by the ruling, specifically a rule that limited how much money can be given to a state political party or a caucus campaign committee.

The rule in question set a $5,000 per year limit on such donations, but because Republicans and Democrats are the only political parties that maintain such committees, smaller political parties must settle for a $2,000 cap on donations.

Bertelsman found that provision of the law treated political parties differently and deemed it to be unconstitutional.

“The legislature could have defined ‘caucus campaign committees’ in a broader way that would allow its application to committees affiliated with political groups other than the Republicans or Democrats,” he wrote.

The defendants in the lawsuit were members of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance and the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

It is unclear if they will appeal the decision, as the parties have 20 days to draft a joint permanent injunction to carry out the judge’s ruling.

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