Important Civil Rights Court Victory:

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 20, 2015

  • Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission sought to silence grassroots advocates, as well as the lawyers who fought for their free speech rights.
  • State campaign finance laws don’t trump federal civil rights, including the constitutionally enshrined right to free speech.
  • Americans have the right to access lawyers to vindicate their constitutional rights, and lawyers have a right to provide those services to whomever they choose without government-imposed limits.

Arlington, Va.—Free legal services to protect constitutional rights “are not a campaign contribution.” With this common-sense ruling, the Superior Court for Pierce County, Wash., today granted an important victory for free speech in the case of Institute for Justice v. State of Washington. The court issued a summary judgment and injunction that halted the government’s attempt to undermine America’s proud tradition of pro bono civil rights litigation by regulating legal services for such cases as if they were campaign contributions.

Washington filed a complaint against the Institute for Justice’s client, Robin Farris, and her political committee, Recall Dale Washam Campaign (RDW), because they had received free legal services to challenge a Washington law that violated their free speech rights.

Since 2011, the Institute for Justice, along with the Washington law firm of Oldfield & Helsdon, PLLC, has represented Robin and RDW in a federal civil right case. IJ won the case in the federal court; the courts repeatedly ruled that a Washington campaign finance law could not be constitutionally applied to Robin and RDW.

When IJ and Oldfield & Helsdon won, they asked for their attorneys’ fees. The Federal Civil Rights Act provides that people who successfully vindicate their civil rights in court should have their attorneys’ fees paid by the government that violated their rights. Congress enacted this law because protecting civil rights are so critical that civil rights plaintiffs are acting as “instrumentalities of Congress” when they do so.

Given the importance of protecting civil rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the right of attorneys and clients to associate together to protect them is at the very heart of First Amendment protections.

But the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) responded by claiming that the free legal services for the civil rights case were “campaign contributions” to the Recall Dale Washam Campaign, thus exposing Farris and RDW to fines for not reporting those free legal services as contributions. IJ and Oldfield & Helsdon represented Robin and the campaign in the case to ensure the Washington Public Disclosure Commission did not violate their rights.

The ability of nonprofit public interest law firms like the Institute for Justice—indeed the ability of any lawyer—to represent clients advocating for public change through any political campaigns would have been in serious jeopardy if the PDC’s effort were left unchecked. Treating legal services in connection with civil rights litigation as campaign contributions means that the PDC could limit those services though contribution limits, chill the willingness of lawyers to provide those services, and threaten the nonprofit status of any public interest law firm that brings those cases.

Bill Maurer, the managing attorney of the Institute for Justice Washington Office, said, “Today’s decision protects the ability of the Institute for Justice, Oldfield & Helsdon, and every other attorney in Washington state to provide civil rights representation to political committees when the government violates their rights. The court correctly recognized that pro bono representation in civil rights cases cannot constitutionally be treated as political contribution.”

Jeffrey Helsdon, of Oldfield & Helsdon, said, “I am very pleased with today’s ruling. The PDC’s actions have made it difficult, if not impossible, for us to offer our clients the kind of legal services they need to vindicate their rights.”

Robin Farris said, “I am both excited and relieved that I can continue to work with IJ and Oldfield & Helsdon to vindicate my rights and the rights of all Washingtonians. The recall process was difficult enough without the unconstitutional laws that we fought and beat. But then to face massive fines just because I got free legal help to challenge those laws is simply too much. When I first got involved in politics four years ago, and just to recall a politician who I thought was abusing his office, I did not realize it would result in my being in court almost nonstop for years. But I know that our efforts will make it easier for ordinary Washingtonians to exercise their own rights and get involved in the future.”

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