Washington’s Limitations on Contributions to Recall Campaigns Violates the First Amendment

John Kramer
John Kramer · October 19, 2012

Arlington, Va.—Washington state can’t limit contributions to recall campaigns to merely $900. To do so violates the First Amendment rights of recall campaigns and their supporters. The Institute for Justice will make these points in papers it will file with the court today in Tacoma on behalf of local citizens hampered by the campaign finance restriction system.

“Washington’s law is the ultimate incumbent protection scheme,” said Bill Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter. “It makes it impossible to recall the most abusive elected officials. And it improperly interferes with the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights in recall campaigns. It is time to bring this unconstitutional system to an end once and for all.”

Today’s filing of the final briefing in support of a motion for summary judgment in Farris v. Seabrook asks Judge Robert Bryan of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington in Tacoma to permanently strike down the contribution limits to recall campaigns as unconstitutional.

The case was filed on June 7, 2011, and came about after retired naval officer Robin Farris read about serious charges of misconduct in office by Pierce County, Wash., Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam and started a committee to recall Washam. Washington has a strict and carefully calibrated recall system where the proponents of a recall must prove to a Superior Court judge that the charges constitute malfeasance or misfeasance, and this decision may be appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. Thus, a recall campaign involves considerable litigation before it may even begin.

Attorneys Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon of the Tacoma, Wash., law firm Oldfield & Helsdon, PLLC, were also concerned about Assessor Washam and volunteered free legal assistance to the recall campaign. But the government called their volunteer services an “in-kind campaign contribution” and Washington law imposes a $900 limit on contributions to recall campaigns, including in-kind contributions.

The $900 contribution limit made the chances of successfully promoting a recall campaign impossible. In addition to effectively outlawing pro bono legal assistance to a campaign, it also made it impossible for recall campaigns to raise sufficient funds to hire signature gatherers and effectively spread its message.

It is no wonder that earlier in the case both Judge Bryan and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the contribution limits to recall campaigns burden First Amendment rights and cause “irreparable injury.” Although two federal courts have rejected the arguments of the state of Washington and groups that seek to limit political speech and participation by limiting campaign funding, the state has refused to admit defeat and continues to fight to defend its unconstitutional law.

“Those backing contribution limits on independent groups like recall campaigns believe there is something inherently wrong with American citizens banding together, pooling their resources and trying to bring about political change,” said IJ Washington Chapter Attorney Jeanette Petersen. “But this kind of free exchange of ideas is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect. By contrast, systems like Washington’s are designed to dampen robust democratic debate and restrict political speech so that it only occurs within government-imposed limits. It is fundamentally inconsistent with the First Amendment for the government to coerce groups into silence when they speak more than the government would like.”

In Farris v. Seabrook, IJ represents Robin Farris, the Recall Dale Washam Committee, and the law firm of Oldfield & Helsdon. In filing its motion for summary judgment, the Institute for Justice hopes to again vindicate the First Amendment rights of Farris and Oldfield & Helsdon and to remind the government that when it limits contributions to recall campaigns, it is unconstitutionally limiting political speech and participation.