Court invalidates Washington state cap on PAC donations

Thu Dec 29, 2011 7:02pm EST

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(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 barred individuals from contributing more than $5,000 to PACs supporting ballot measures during the three weeks before a vote.

But the court upheld two other Washington laws that require political action committees to disclose information on donors who give more than $25 or $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 cap was an unconstitutional restraint on its freedom of speech, and presented evidence that, if not for the limit, it would have received contributions during the referendum campaign totaling $80,000 from Focus on the Family, another lobbying group.

The state responded that most Washington counties use a vote-by-mail system, which requires ballots be sent out 18 days before the election date. The state said 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.

But the court ruled 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, he wrote.

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 names and addresses of donors who contribute more than $25, and the occupations and employers of donors who give more than $100.

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.

James Bopp, a lawyer for Family PAC, praised the decision to strike down the state's rare blackout period that limited ballot measure fund-raising before an election.

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.

(Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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