U.S. Supreme Court remands statutory campaign limit case noting court of appeals upheld it under the wrong analysis
Thompson v. Hebdon, 140 S. Ct. 348 (2019)
In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court held the court of appeals improperly analyzed Alaska’s statute limiting political contributions as constitutional.
Alaska law limits the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate for political office, or to an election-oriented group other than a political party, to $500 per year. Petitioners challenged the limit as an unconstitutional restriction on their First Amendment rights. The trial court and court of appeals upheld the limit.
The Ninth Circuit upheld the law noting the evidence necessary to justify a legitimate state interest is low: the perceived threat must be merely more than “mere conjecture” and “not . . . illusory.” Under this analysis, the circuit court held the limit was narrowly tailored and allowed effective campaigning. However, such an analysis ignored the Supreme Court’s opinion in Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U. S. 230 (2006). “[C]ontribution limits that are too low can . . . harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.” It also ignored several “danger signs” listed in Randall such as lower comparable limits in other states, a failure to adjust for inflation over time (Alaska’s has been the same for 23 years), and the application to different offices. The State failed to provide “any special justification that might warrant a contribution limit so low.” As a result, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s opinion and remanded for consideration consistent with its opinion. Justice Ginsburg wrote separately to emphasize that while remand is proper, Alaska has the second smallest legislature in the country and derives 90% of its budget from the oil and gas industry. As a result, the justifications for such a low limit must be analyzed consistent with Alaska’s comparable place in the country.
If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per curiam opinion.