(CN) – Washington cannot ban large contributions to political action committees within three weeks of an election, but it can require disclosures about the donors and their employers, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
The Family PAC, the counterpoint to a ballot measure for Washington’s domestic partnership law, sued the state attorney general and members of the state Public Disclosure Commission in 2009 over three laws concerning PAC donations.
One law prevents committees from accepting individual contributions exceeding $5,000 within 21 days of an election. Two other laws require PACS to give the names and addresses of supporters who contributed at least $25, and to disclose the employers and occupations of $100-minimum donors.
The Family PAC says these laws violate the First Amendment and that it lost potential donations because some supporters did not want their names and addresses to become public. If not for the $5,000 contribution limit, Focus on the Family would have contributed $60,000 and $20,000 before the 2009 election, according to the complaint.
Washington argued, however, that it needs the disclosure laws to inform the voters about who is financing ballot measure committees. Blocking big contributions in the 21 days before an election allegedly forces contributors with deep pockets to identify themselves before ballots are mailed to voters.
Both sides appealed after U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma, Wa., let the disclosure requirements stand but threw out the contribution limits.
The Portland, Ore.-based appellate panel agreed with Leighton, however, noting that the disclosure rules “survive exacting scrutiny because they are substantially related to the important governmental interest in informing the electorate.”
Judge Raymond Fisher, writing for a three-member panel, called the disclosure burdens “modest” and said Family PAC “has not presented evidence suggesting that Washington’s disclosure laws actually and meaningfully deter contributors.” The group also failed to show the requirements exposed contributors to “harassment or retaliation,” according to the ruling.
In nullifying the contribution limit, the court found that it “imposes a significant burden, because it limits contributions during the critical three-week period before the election, when political committees may want to respond to developing events.”
Voters who cast their mail-in ballots early “make a voluntary choice to forgo relevant information that may come to light in the final weeks of the campaign,” Fisher added.