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Campaign law limits rights, suit says

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James Bopp Jr., the attorney who brought a federal lawsuit against Hawaii’s campaign finance law, said the law severely limits First Amendment rights to criticize the government and participate in political campaigns.

"It is a serious challenge. We do think it’s a serious violation of the First Amendment, and that’s the reason we’re pursuing it," he said in a telephone interview.

The lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court on behalf of A-1 A-lectrician Inc. seeks to strike down the state’s ban on political donations by state and county contractors. The suit also challenges state law guiding corporations to register as political action committees before making donations, political advertising reporting requirements, political advertising attribution and disclaimer provisions, and the $1,000 donation limit for political action committees.

Bopp, an attorney in Terre Haute, Ind., has been involved in many of the most significant legal challenges to federal and state campaign finance laws.

He was among the attorneys behind the case that led to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in January that lifted the federal ban on political spending by corporations before elections. The court found that corporations, like individuals, have a constitutional right to engage in political speech.

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In 2002, Bopp successfully represented Hawaii Right to Life when the interest group wanted to run issue advocacy ads before two special elections to replace U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink in Congress. A federal judge found that the group had a First Amendment right to sponsor the ads and was not covered by what was then a new federal ban on corporate political spending before elections.

Like in Bopp’s previous challenges, the new lawsuit against Hawaii’s campaign finance law "begins with the principle of freedom of speech."

Barbara Wong, executive director of the state Campaign Spending Commission, defendant in the suit, declined to comment on pending litigation.

But open-government groups — Common Cause Hawaii, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, Americans for Democratic Action/Hawaii and Voter Owned Hawaii — said Bopp’s intent is to dismantle campaign finance regulations nationwide.

The state’s ban on political donations from state and county contractors was intended to discourage the practice known as "pay to play," or trading campaign contributions for consideration on government work.

"Citizens in Hawaii and across the country support strong pay-to-play laws. Our pay-to-play law was strongly supported by the people of Hawaii when it was first passed, and again when there were attempts later to water it down," Jean Aoki of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii said in a statement. "We know there is something rotten when you mix campaign donations and government contracts. Pay-to-play restrictions are fundamental to prevent corruption in government."

Barbara Polk, legislative chairwoman of Americans for Democratic Action/Hawaii, called the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case "appalling."

"That decision allows unlimited corporate spending in campaigns and was promptly denounced by President Obama and the overwhelming majority of the American public," she said in a statement. She said Bopp "and his team seem eager to let moneyed interests out-shout the voices of ordinary Americans."

 

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