San Diego Can’t Block Corporate Donations

      (CN) – Some provisions of San Diego’s campaign-finance law may violate free speech in the wake of the landmark Citizens United decision, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday, affirming a lower court’s ruling for the Republican Party.

     The federal appeals court in Pasadena upheld a District Court’s preliminary injunction of a provision that restricts the fundraising and spending of independent political committees. The three-judge panel also agreed with the lower court’s decision not to enjoin a provision of the law prohibiting contributions to candidates outside of a 12-month pre-election window.
     A federal judge in San Diego had considered the constitutionality of five provisions of the law through a 2009 lawsuit against the city filed by Phil Thalheimer, a former and future city council candidate, a political action committee for the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego chapter, the Lincoln Club, the San Diego County Republican Party and others.
     The suit is one of several challenges to local campaign finance laws filed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows unlimited corporate funding of independent political commercials in candidate elections.
     The panel found that the District Court was right to enjoin the city’s restrictions on the fundraising and spending of political committees, because San Diego “lacks a sufficiently important governmental interest to justify the law.”
     Banning fundraising outside the 12-month window is more justifiable, the panel found, as it is “not a serious burden for candidates to ‘merely be “forced to rearrange their fundraising” by concentrating it in the 12-month window.'”
     Additionally, the panel found that the “district court correctly determined that plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed in their general challenge to the … provisions making it unlawful for ‘non-individuals’ to contribute directly to candidates, but likely to succeed in showing that the law is unconstitutional as applied to political parties,” the ruling states.
     “Recent Supreme Court decisions, notably Citizens United v. FEC, have once again placed the constitutionality of campaign finance reform in flux, inspiring new challenges to election laws across the country,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote for the unanimous panel. “Plaintiffs mount a First Amendment challenge to San Diego’s campaign finance laws. The district court considered the constitutionality of five provisions and generally upheld the city’s pure contribution limits, but enjoined a provision that restricts both the fundraising and spending of independent political committees. The district court correctly recognized that even as the campaign finance reform landscape has shifted, nearly four decades after the Watergate break-in, Buckley’s [the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, in which the Supreme Court held that campaign finance regulations ‘operate in an area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities.’] expenditure-contribution distinction continues to frame the constitutional analysis of campaign finance regulations.
     “Because the district court properly applied the applicable preliminary injunction standard in the context of the presently discernible rules governing campaign finance restrictions, we affirm,” Wardlaw continued.

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