By Paul Avelar
Robin Farris is a retired U.S. Naval officer living in Washington state who had never before been involved in politics. But when she learned about the antics of Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam—the subject of multiple lawsuits and investigations regarding his alleged abuse of office, employees and the public trust—she started a grassroots campaign to recall him from office. This is her right under the Washington Constitution.
Under Washington law, Robin had to file charges against Washam and convince a court that the charges constituted a recallable offense. Because this is complicated litigation, Farris accepted the help of two lawyers, Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon, who volunteered their time, and together they made a strong enough case for the courts to let the recall go forward.
But the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC)—the group of unelected bureaucrats in charge of administering Washington’s vast web of restrictions on political speech—took notice of Farris’ success. They threatened to fine her for accepting volunteer legal services because the value of those services exceeded Washington’s low $800 limit on contributions to recall campaigns.
In other words, Washington not only requires substantial litigation to start a recall, but it essentially prohibits people from getting pro bono legal help to engage in that government-mandated litigation—even if the lawyers refuse to be paid for their help. This means that only Washingtonians with the means to hire their own attorneys enjoy the right of recall. Washingtonians of ordinary means, like Robin, are left out.
Worse yet, even though ordinary citizens are subject to this low contribution limit, the law permits insiders like political parties and their committees to give tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a recall. Washington’s campaign finance law thus serves to entrench the power of political parties and other political insiders against “outsider” citizen groups—also known as ordinary people who dare to exercise their rights.
Washington’s restrictions on recall committees are not permissible under our Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that government restrictions on political speech and spending are unconstitutional unless they are closely related to stopping a politician from trading his vote for cash. But there is no threat of corruption from contributions to a recall campaign because there is no candidate to corrupt. Indeed, a recall campaign is the opposite of corruption—there’s no danger that a politician will do favors for someone who donates to his recall campaign; indeed, quite the opposite. Even the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—one of the courts most favorable to laws restricting political speech—has recognized that recall contributions are not corrupting. Yet Washington persists in enforcing unconstitutional laws.
As the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us in IJ’s recent victory over Arizona’s “Clean Elections” Act, “[W]hen it comes to [political] speech, the guiding principle is freedom.” That is why IJ has teamed with Robin and her pro bonoattorneys to challenge Washington’s restrictions. Campaign finance laws limit political speech and participation and interfere with the ability of the people to bring about necessary and important political change. All Washingtonians—not just the wealthy or the politically connected—have the right to free speech and to recall abusive officials from office.
Paul Avelar is an IJ Arizona Chapter staff attorney.