By Lisa Soronen
Following Thompson v. Hebdon, states with low individual-to-candidate or individual-to-group campaign contribution limits may want to review their constitutionality.
In a per curiam (unauthored) opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed the 9th Circuit to decide again whether Alaska law, which 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, violates the First Amendment. The 9th Circuit previously upheld the law.
According to the Supreme Court, the 9th Circuit failed to apply the Supreme Court’s most recent precedent involving non-aggregated contribution limits, Randall v. Sorrell (2006). In that case the Supreme Court 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. The plurality opinion in Randall explained that the problem with very low limits is that they can “prevent[ challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.”
In Randall the court identified “danger signs” indicating a contribution limit might be unconstitutional. According to the court, Alaska’s law shares some of these characteristics. First, Alaska’s limit is less than two-thirds of the lowest contribution limit the court has upheld. Second, Alaska’s law is the most restrictive in the country for individual-to-candidate limits. The court cited Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine and Montana as also having low individual-to-candidate limits. Finally, Alaska’s law is not adjusted for inflation.
The court’s opinion was unsigned. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a one-page statement not opposing the remand but noting that “Alaska’s law does not exhibit certain features found troublesome in Vermont’s law.”
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.