Federal Judge Orders Minnesota to Stop Enforcing Restrictive Campaign Finance Law

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 19, 2014

St. Paul, Minn.—Today, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank issued a dramatic ruling that will greatly expand the freedom of political speech in Minnesota’s 2014 state elections. Judge Frank ordered state officials to cease enforcement of a long-standing Minnesota campaign finance law called the “special sources limit” as it applies to contributions from ordinary citizens. The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice, a non-partisan, public-interest law firm.

The special sources limit dishes out First Amendment rights on a first-come, first-served basis. The law cuts in half the maximum contribution an ordinary citizen can make to a candidate after that candidate receives a certain amount of money from donors donating more than half the legal limit. For example, if a candidate for State House receives 12 contributions of $1,000, the thirteenth contributor (and all subsequent contributors) may give no more than $500. As a result, early contributors have a greater ability to support the candidate of their choice than those who contribute later.

“The government should not be using campaign finance laws to play favorites,” said Anthony Sanders, an IJ attorney and lead counsel in the case. “This ruling means that all Minnesotans who want to support political candidates will enjoy the same rights, no matter when in the election they make their contribution.”

Judge Frank’s ruling means candidates for all state offices—from governor to State House—are free to raise contributions at the full legal limit without having to worry about whether they already raised “too many” of them. In his 14-page opinion, Judge Frank rightly acknowledges, “the Government many not penalize an individual for robustly exercising his First Amendment rights.”

“Minnesota’s law is unconstitutional because it does nothing to prevent quid pro quo corruption, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is the only reason politicians can limit speech in our elections,” said Sanders. “All the law does is arbitrarily cut in half how much donors can help their favorite candidates speak.”

According to IJ’s review of campaign finance reports, Governor Mark Dayton is over 90 percent of the way toward his special sources limit—with the election still over five months away. Without this ruling, Governor Dayton would have soon needed to send back any contributions he received over $2,000, even though the legal limit for an individual is $4,000.

Judge Frank’s ruling comes three weeks after he heard arguments from IJ and the state attorney general’s office. IJ filed the case on April 9, 2014, on behalf of a coalition of donors and candidates. Within the same week it filed the lawsuit, IJ asked Judge Frank to prevent the law from being enforced as the case moves forward.

The challenge to the special sources limit came just a week after the Supreme Court issued its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that found a federal law similar to Minnesota’s law unconstitutional.

The defendants in the case—members of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board and two county attorneys—may now appeal the ruling to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where they would face a high burden for reversing Judge Frank’s decision. If the defendants decide not to appeal, the case will proceed to a final ruling later this year or next.

For more information on this lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/MN-special-sources-limit. Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.