Zimmerman v. City of Austin
Zimmerman v. City of Austin is a First Amendment challenge to Austin’s municipal campaign finance law, including its contribution limits for city council candidates. For decades, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the contribution limits serve the important goal of preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, while at the same time only minimally burdening First Amendment rights.
UPDATE: On February 1, the Fifth Circuit panel issued a unanimous opinion, upholding the city's contribution limits. But the fight to protect contribution limits is not over, as we expect the decision to be appealed.
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 Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals adopts Zimmerman’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 in government.
In 1997, voters in Austin, Texas enacted a campaign finance reform law that, among other things, capped the amount donors could give to candidates for city council, created a black-out period during which candidates could not receive campaign donations, and required that unused campaign funds be spent or donated to charity shortly after the election. In 2006, the Austin City Council revised the contribution limits and pegged them to inflation; in 2016, the contribution limit was $350.
An incumbent city council member, Donald Zimmerman, filed a federal lawsuit against the city in 2015 arguing that these campaign finance regulations violated the First Amendment. The district court upheld the contribution limits, but invalidated the black-out period and dissolution requirements.
Zimmerman appealed the district court’s decision upholding the contribution limits to the Fifth Circuit, and the city cross-appealed the invalidation of the black-out period provision and the dissolution requirement. Throughout the litigation, Zimmerman has advocated that longstanding precedent upholding contribution limits be set aside and replaced with a far more demanding standard that would jeopardize similar contribution limits across the country.
On July 20, 2016, the district court upheld the contribution limits, but invalidated other provisions of the law. On appeal, Zimmerman, the former city council member who brought the suit, is asking the Fifth Circuit to reject the longstanding precedent upholding contribution limits as constitutional, and instead adopt a rigorous standard of review that would eliminate decades of deference courts have granted to legislatures in determining whether to adopt contribution limits and which dollar level to choose.
CLC, along with Dēmos, filed an amicus brief on May 8, 2017, arguing that Austin’s contribution limits should be upheld. CLC’s brief emphasizes the Supreme Court resolved this issue long ago—that Austin 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.