Washington Recall

Farris et al. v. Seabrook et al.
Campaign Finance Laws versus Good Government


IJ Client Robin Farris

What began in Washington state as a recall effort to remove a questionable local politician from office has now grown into a campaign finance fight with nationwide implications.

A federal lawsuit filed on June 7, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash., by the Institute for Justice on behalf of a grassroots activist and her volunteer attorneys spotlights 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.  Washington’s campaign finance laws protect 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 limits most contributions to most recall campaigns to $800.  This low limit means 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—views 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.

In a decision well-timed for Election Day, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington 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. 

Because the ability of future recall campaigns to fully exercise their First Amendment rights remained unsettled, the Institute for Justice appealed the District Court’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Friday, July 11, 2014 the 9th Circuit announced it would not consider whether the law can be constitutionally applied to other groups.

Despite the loss in the 9th Circuit, IJ will continue to fight to vindicate the First Amendment rights of all who seek to participate in the political process and to remind the government that when it limits contributions on political speech—as it has done here with contributions to recall campaigns—it is unconstitutionally limiting political speech and participation.




Essential Background


Backgrounder: Campaign Finance Laws versus Good Government: Washington’s Laws Frustrate the People’s Ability to Recall Abusive Elected Officials

Video: Gov't Bully to Citizen Activists: Lie or Face Crippling Fines
Latest Release: Washington’s Unconstitutional Limits on Donations to Recall Campaigns Avoids Review (July 14, 2014)

Legal Briefs and Decisions

Download: 9th Circuit panel decision on permanent injunction (July 11, 2014) (PDF)
Download: 9th Circuit opinion affirming preliminary injunction (January 19, 2012) (PDF)
Launch Release: New Lawsuit in Washington Recall Battle Shows Campaign Finance Restrictions Limit Free Speech and Political Participation (June 7, 2011) Download: Order granting preliminary injunction (July 15, 2011) (PDF)


Case Timeline

Lawsuit Filed:

June 7, 2011

Court Filed:


United States District Court for the Western District of Washington at Tacoma



Current Court:


9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals



9th Circuit declines to review law’s constitutionality

Next Key Date:



Additional Releases

Maps, Charts and Facts

Release: Free Speech Victory in Washington State (November 7, 2012)
Release: Washington’s Limitations on Contributions to Recall Campaigns Violates the First Amendment (October 19, 2012) none available

Release: Free Speech Victory: 9th Circuit Upholds Injunction Protecting People’s Right of Free Speech In Recall Campaigns (January 19, 2012)

Release: Washington State Appeals Decision Halting Cap on Contributions to Recall Campaigns (July 21, 2011)

Release: First Amendment Victory: Federal Court Issues Injunction to Protect Peoples’ Right of Free Speech in Recall Campaigns (July 15, 2011)

Op-eds, News Articles and Links

Op-ed: State to citizens: Be politically engaged, but not too engaged Bellingham Herald (November 8, 2014)

 Bill Maurer, executive director of Washington's Institute for Justice
KTTH-AM (July 17, 2014)

Op-ed: Campaign Finance Laws Thwart Grass-Roots Recall Efforts; The News Tribune (June 2011)

Op-ed: Right of Recall Shouldn't be Limited to the Wealthy; The News Tribune (June 2011)

Op-ed: How Campaign Finance Laws Benefit Incumbents and Insiders; Center for Competitive Politics (June 2011)

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