POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 15, 2011
Hawaii's attorney general had little choice but to drop his appeal of a judge's discarding of the state's limit on donations to political actions committees. However, the practical consideration in that case should not diminish any vigor in defending other campaign donation laws against challenges, and legislators should seek other ways to control other political expenditures.
Last October, U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright struck down the state's $1,000 limit on contributions to noncandidate political action committees. Nine months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had narrowly ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that federal prohibition of independent corporate spending infringed on First Amendment free speech rights.
Citing the high court ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over Hawaii, last Thursday knocked down San Diego's contribution and spending limits on independent committees.
Hawaii's appeal of Seabright's ruling was set for oral arguments today —but going through with the case would have been futile, given last week's appellate court ruling, and would have been a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. State lawyers now must concentrate on protecting other Hawaii political spending laws that are being challenged in court.
The lawsuit filed by Indiana lawyer James Bopp Jr., who was among the Citizens United attorneys in the high court case, also challenges the state law requiring corporations to register as political action committees before making donations and report political advertising and political advertising attribution and disclaimer provisions.
Seabright has rightly upheld laws requiring noncandidate PACs to make certain disclosures, including contributors' names, and to include disclaimers in ads. Still pending in his court is an attempt to overturn a ban on "pay to play" political contributions by state and county contractors.
Seabright has pointed out that the Supreme Court in 1976 "concluded that preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption are the only legitimate and compelling government interests" in restricting campaign finances. That certainly should apply to political contributions by government contractors.
Appellate courts should not be diverted by a misguided federal judge in Virginia who last week ruled that the federal ban on corporate contributions to political candidates is unconstitutional. District Judge James Cacheris issued the opinion in a criminal case against two men accused of making illegal donations in the 2006 Senate and 2008 presidential campaigns of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Bopp has said that he and his associates are involved in as many as 30 cases around the country challenging state campaign spending laws. He expects to return to the Supreme Court over Minnesota's law on corporate disclosure of campaign spending, which has been upheld by a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit.
All these court wranglings over campaign contributions underscore the magnitude of what's at stake: the pay-to-play nature of politics today and the buying of power. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's wrongheaded Citizens United ruling, states must be allowed to regulate contributions against possible corruption. To this end, Hawaii's campaign spending rules need to maintain strong oversight and transparency for the public good.