Some state limits on how much money voters can donate to their chosen political candidate can violate the First Amendment, so a fight over Alaska's restriction is being returned to a lower court for the judges to "revisit" Supreme Court precedent.
The decision on Monday came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which torpedoed the state's mandate that voters are allowed to donate a maximum of $500 per year to any political candidate or group other than a political party.
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The case, Thompson v. Hebdon, was handled by lead counsel Paul Clement and others, including attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had admitted its decision likely was wrong, because it conflicted with those precedents, but it went ahead and approved the restrictions anyway.
"The freedom of voters to participate in the political process is seriously impeded by laws that don't allow them to meaningfully support the candidates and causes they believe in," said ADF Senior Counsel John Bursch. "We are not surprised that the Supreme Court vacated this ruling and sent it back for reconsideration. It has previously made clear that such contributions are a quintessential First Amendment exercise. The 9th Circuit seemed to understand this but, mystifyingly, relied on its own, older precedent rather than the Supreme Court’s more recent decisions in upholding Alaska’s overly restrictive campaign contribution limits."
ADF explained, "When adjusted for inflation, the $500 limit falls below a similar Vermont law the Supreme Court struck down in 2006, making it nearly impossible for Alaskan candidates to communicate with voters in the nation’s largest geographical districts."
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The court's opinion said, the "Ninth Circuit declined to apply our precedent in Randall v. Sorrell, the last time we considered a non-aggregate contribution limit. In Randall, we invalidated a Vermont law that limited individual contributions on a per-election basis to: $400 to a candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or other statewide office; $300 to a candidate for state senator; and $200 to a candidate for state representative. Justice Breyer’s opinion for the plurality observed that ‘contribution limits that are too low can . . . harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability….’ In Randall, we identified several ‘danger signs’ about Vermont’s law that warranted closer review. Alaska’s limit on campaign contributions shares some of those characteristics."
The opponents of the limit had explained to the court: "Alaska is a large and sparsely populated state whose unique geography poses distinct and expensive challenges for candidates for elected office. Yet Alaska has some of the lowest campaign contribution limits in the country: It allows individuals to contribute only $500 per year to any candidate for any office, or to any group other than a political party…. Not only are those limits lower than those of all but three other states; they are significantly lower than any contribution limit this Court has ever upheld…."
The court's opinion itself addressed a list of procedural moves all at once.
"The petition for certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for that court to revisit whether Alaska's contribution limits are consistent with our First Amendment precedents."
The justices also explained its precedent was based on the fact that the state "had failed to provide 'any special justification that might warrant a contribution limit so low.'"