(CN) – A federal judge in California denied the City of San Diego’s motion for an immediate stay after the court issued a preliminary ruling that portions of its campaign finance laws violate First Amendment rights.
Phil Thalheimer, a former City Council candidate, and the San Diego chapters of the Lincoln Club and Republican Party, claimed that five provisions of the San Diego Municipal Election Campaign Control Ordinance were unconstitutional, including bans on how candidates could spend campaign contributions and limits on how much money people could donate.
According to the city, Thalheimer’s order enjoining enforcement of the political party contribution limit was properly stayed in the preliminary ruling, but the court should have also stayed the limit on contributions to independent expenditure committees. Chief Judge Irma E. Gonzalez ruled that “there is a key difference … between the two provisions” because a complete ban on political party contributions was not “closely drawn” to the city’s anticorruption interest, “but indicated that a limit which ‘gives proper ‘weight’ to individuals’ interest in participating in the political process by contributing to political parties’ could be appropriate.”
“Because some limit other than a complete ban would be appropriate, the court stayed the order as to that provision until such time as the city could consider another monetary limit,” Gonzalez wrote. “By contrast, the court found that the city likely did not have a sufficiently important interest justifying a limit on contributions to independent expenditure committees, because it is implausible that such contributions have the potential to corrupt or create the appearance of corruption.”
While Gonzalez noted that the city showed that the election season might be flooded with large contributions to independent expenditure committees, “the potential harm from lack of disclosure of these contributors does not tip the scales in favor of granting the stay.”
The city also argued in its motion that it is an abuse of discretion to grant a preliminary ruling without allowing factual development, and because the same issue is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court. While it is possible that a decision in the Ninth Circuit might disrupt voters if the city changes its campaign finance rules during the election season, an injunction might be reversed on appeal, Gonzalez added.
“The city cites no authority to support its contention that a court abuses its discretion when it does not stay proceedings pending determination of the same issue by a court of higher authority,” Gonzalez wrote. “The limit on non-individual entity contributions to candidates does not involve the same issue as the limit on contributions to independent expenditure committees, namely, whether contributions to committees that make only independent expenditures have the potential to corrupt or create the appearance of corruption.”
Although the city alleged that its residents would be confused by changes to the finance rules mid-election season and that it would take time to change the laws, it does not allege that “there is confusion as to what conduct is enjoined, or that there is insufficient time to adequately inform candidates and the public about the changes,” Gonzalez wrote. According to the motion, the San Diego Ethics Commission is updating its Web site and educational resources to represent the potential changes.