Washington State Appeals Decision Halting Cap on Contributions to Recall Campaigns

John Kramer
John Kramer · July 22, 2011

Arlington, Va.—Today, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) appealed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington that halted the operation of a law that restricts how much money people may give to campaigns to recall elected officials. In a decision that protected both the First Amendment and the right of recall guaranteed by the Washington Constitution, Judge Robert Bryan on July 15, 2011, enjoined the PDC from enforcing an $800 cap on the amount one may contribute to the Recall Dale Washam campaign until the court can make a full decision on the merits. The PDC will now ask the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse that decision.


The case, which was filed on June 7, involves retired Navy officer Robin Farris, who recently launched a recall campaign against controversial Pierce County, Wash., Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. But Farris ran headlong into the restrictions, complexities and red tape of Washington’s campaign finance laws. Among those laws was Washington’s $800 limit on contributions to recall campaigns. This limit even extended to in-kind donations of legal services. Even though attorneys Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon of the firm Oldfield & Helsdon PLLChappily donated free legal assistance to Farris to help her navigate the complex law surrounding recall campaigns, Washington called their volunteer service a contribution and could have fined Robin for accepting too much of their help.


For Farris, these limits seriously interfered with her ability to run an effective campaign. That is why she joined with the Institute for Justice to fight these limits on grassroots political advocacy.


“This law is about limiting political advocacy in Washington state and protecting incumbents from recall elections,” said Bill Maurer, the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which argued for the injunction. “The PDC says this law is about fighting corruption, but the law hobbles the peoples’ strongest weapon against corrupt public officials—the right of recall guaranteed by the Washington Constitution. If they were really concerned about corruption, the PDC would not be trying so hard—at a time when Washington state is facing severe fiscal challenges—to take away the peoples’ most effective tool to fight it.”


Judge Bryan’s decision halted the PDC’s ability to enforce that restriction against the campaign until the court can fully consider the case on the merits. In his ruling, Judge Bryan held that the PDC, had “not shown that it has an important state interest which would justify limiting Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights . . . .” The court also said that “the public interest in upholding free speech and association rights outweighs the interest in the continued enforcement of these campaign finance provisions.”


Judge Bryan’s order enjoining the enforcement of the cap will stay in effect during the appeal unless the Ninth Circuit says otherwise. Maurer predicted that the Ninth Circuit will act swiftly and protect Washingtonian’s right of recall: “Judge Bryan correctly applied both U.S. Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedent; in order to overturn his decision, the appellate court would have to disregard a host of decisions recognizing the primacy of political speech in elections.”


The Institute for Justice recently won one of the cases from the U.S. Supreme Court relied upon by the district court: Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.