Thompson v. Hebdon
Thompson v. Hebdon is a First Amendment challenge to Alaska’s campaign finance law, including its contribution limits for state legislative candidates and its limit on contributions from out-of-state donors. For decades, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the contribution limits serve the important goal of preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, while not significantly burdening First Amendment rights.
What’s at Stake?
Thirty-nine states and countless local governments limit the amount of money donors can contribute to candidates. Courts have long recognized that these laws are effective tools at preventing corruption and its appearance. If the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals adopts Thompson’s proposed rigorous standard of review, contribution limits across the country will be opened up to new scrutiny and decades of settled law will be called into question. This would hamstring the ability of state and local governments to fight corruption.
Alaska has had a long history of exploitation by out-of-state energy extraction companies. It relies on those companies and their out-of-state workers for approximately 90% of the state’s budget. Alaska has also experienced its fair share of corruption scandals involving campaign contributions.
In 1996, the Alaska legislature enacted a campaign finance reform law based on a proposed initiative that likely would have passed that November. Among other things, the law set a $500 annual contribution limit to candidates for state office ($1,000 over a two-year election cycle), and set aggregate caps on how much each candidate could take from out-of-state donors. In 2003, the state legislature increased the base contribution limits from $500 to $1,000 per year. But in 2006, out of concern for the corrupting potential of larger donations, 73 percent of Alaskans voted to move the limits back to their earlier $500 level.
Several plaintiffs brought a First Amendment case against Alaska’s base contribution limit, its aggregate out-of-state donor limit, and two other types of contribution limits. David Thompson, a Wisconsin resident, wished to donate to his brother-in-law’s campaign for the Alaska State House of Representatives despite the fact that his brother-in-law had already met the $3,000 cap on donations he could take from nonresidents. Aaron Downing and Jim Crawford, meanwhile, wanted to donate more than $500 a year to their favored candidates. The district court upheld the base limits and the nonresident contribution cap, along with the other challenged limits.
The plaintiffs appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the plaintiffs ask the court to reject longstanding precedent upholding contribution limits as constitutional. Instead, they ask the court to adopt a rigorous standard of review, which would eliminate decades of deference courts have granted to legislatures in determining whether to adopt contribution limits and which dollar level to choose.
CLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief on July 26, 2017, arguing that Alaska’s contribution limits should be upheld. CLC’s brief points to how the Supreme Court resolved this issue long ago—that Alaska has the right to employ contribution limits as a means of preventing corruption and its appearance and that the court should defer to its judgment in setting the right amount for those limits. It also explains that Alaska’s unique vulnerability to quid pro quo corruption involving nonresidents gives the State a compelling reason to adopt aggregate contribution limits for out-of-state donors.