Dec 29 (Reuters) - Washington state cannot prohibit
individuals from making large donations to certain political
action committees in the weeks leading up to a general
election, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit invalidated a
Washington state law that prevented individuals from
contributing more than $5,000 to PACs supporting ballot
measures during the three weeks before a vote. At the same
time, the court upheld two other Washington laws that require
political action committees to disclose information on donors
who give more than $25 and $100.
Family PAC, a conservative political committee formed to
oppose Washington's domestic partnership law through a voter
referendum, filed a lawsuit in 2009 to challenge the disclosure
requirements and $5,000 contribution cap. The group argued that
the laws were an unconstitutional restraint on its freedom of
speech under the First Amendment. At trial, the committee
presented evidence that, but for the limit, it would have
received contributions during the referendum campaign of
$60,000 and $20,000 from Focus on the Family, another lobbying
The state responded that most Washington counties use a
vote-by-mail system, which requires sending out ballots 18 days
before the election date. The $5,000 cap during the three weeks
before the election was necessary to inform voters of big-money
donors by the time ballots were mailed out, the state argued.
But the district court and 9th Circuit disagreed.
The limit imposed a "significant burden" by restricting
donations "during the critical three-week period before the
election, when political committees may want to respond to
developing events," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the
three-judge panel. Voters who chose to cast their ballots by
mail while the campaign was in full swing made a voluntary
choice to forego relevant information that might later surface,
Nancy Krier, a lawyer for the Washington State Public
Disclosure Commission who argued on behalf of the state, was
not immediately available for comment. Dan Sytman, a spokesman
for the Washington Attorney General, said the office was
reviewing the decision.
James Bopp, a lawyer for Family PAC, praised the decision
for striking down the state's rare blackout period that limited
ballot measure fundraising before an election.
While Family PAC prevailed in striking down the three-week
contribution cap, the group lost its challenge to two other
Washington laws requiring political committees to report the
name and address of anyone who contributes more than $25, and
the occupation and employer of donors who give more than
Both the district court and 9th Circuit rejected Family
PAC's claims that small donors would avoid donating to avoid
the risk of harassment or retaliation.
"The requirements impose only modest burdens on First
Amendment rights, while serving a governmental interest in an
informed electorate that is of the utmost importance," the
judge wrote. The court cited the Supreme Court's 2010 decision
in Citizens United v. FEC for the principle that disclosure
requirements may burden the ability to speak, but they do not
limit campaign-related activities and do not prevent anyone
Bopp, who is pursuing challenges against several states'
disclosure requirements, said courts are using Citizens United
to give "carte blanche to any law that can be characterized as
disclosure." The First Circuit threw out Bopp's clients'
challenges to disclosure requirements in Maine and Rhode Island
The latest case is Family PAC v. McKenna, U.S. Court of
Appeals for the 9th Circuit, No. 10-35832.
For Family PAC: James Bopp of Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom.
For the state defendants: Nancy Krier of the Washington
State Public Disclosure Commission.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes)
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