Farris et al. v. Seabrook et al.
Campaign Finance Laws versus Good Government
|IJ Client Robin Farris|
In this case, the Institute for Justice represented a grassroots activist and her volunteer attorneys in a case that demonstrated how campaign finance laws unconstitutionally limit political speech and participation and interfere with the ability of the people to bring about necessary and important political change. The case challenged Washington’s campaign finance laws that protected incumbents from recall elections by arbitrarily limiting how much money citizens may donate to recall efforts and by limiting how much time individuals like lawyers, bookkeepers and accountants may volunteer for recall campaigns.
Retired Naval officer Robin Farris watched with dismay media stories about how Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam was running his office. Upset with what she saw, she decided—for the first time in her life—to get involved in politics. She started organizing a campaign to recall Washam from office.
Washington allows the people to vote on whether an elected official should remain in office. To limit this power to only those officials who have created serious questions about their fitness for office, Washington law requires a Superior Court judge to decide if the charges against the official are sufficient. A direct appeal can then be taken to the Washington Supreme Court. In other words, a recall campaign is difficult and expensive, and it involves significant litigation before a campaign can even begin to collect signatures.
But Washington law limited most contributions to most recall campaigns to $800 (now $950). This low limit meant that campaigns to recall elected officials are hobbled from the very beginning. Worse yet, the Public Disclosure Commission—the unelected officials in charge of regulating political speech in Washington—viewed free legal services as a campaign contribution, even though significant litigation is required before a recall campaign can even start. When the Tacoma law firm of Oldfield & Helsdon PLLC volunteered to help with state-mandated litigation, the PDC told them their volunteer efforts were a campaign contribution limited by the law.
On behalf of Recall Dale Washam (RDW), Robin Farris, and Oldfield & Helsdon, the Institute for Justice filed suit challenging the constitutionality of this limit and obtained a preliminary injunction. The PDC appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision affirming the district court’s order and holding that the PDC’s actions were likely unconstitutional.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington then concluded on November 6, 2012, that the state of Washington had unconstitutionally enforced the contribution limits against the Recall Dale Washam campaign. Unfortunately, the decision did not resolve the issue of whether this law can be constitutionally applied to other groups seeking to recall other elected officials. IJ then appealed to the Ninth Circuit to try to get the court’s reasoning to apply to all recall campaigns. The Ninth Circuit denied that appeal and the Supreme Court denied RDW’s petition for a writ of certiorari. Nonetheless, the earlier excellent decision on the preliminary injunction from the Ninth Circuit stands and IJ’s vindicated its clients’ rights in this important First Amendment case.