Judge rejects conservative group’s challenge to state’s campaign finance laws

TACOMA — Opponents of stronger legal partnerships for gay couples must abide by Washington state’s campaign finance laws while a lawsuit challenging those laws’ constitutional footing moves ahead, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed by a week-old political action committee called Family PAC, part of a socially conservative Lynnwood political group called the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

Family PAC is opposed to Referendum 71, a ballot measure asking voters to approve or reject a new law that would significantly broaden state domestic partnership rights for gay couples and unmarried seniors.

Family PAC’s lawsuit argues that two state campaign finance laws violate constitutional free speech rights: A ban on donations above $5,000 in the three weeks before Election Day, and a requirement to identify everyone who contributes more than $25.

The committee asked Tuesday for an emergency suspension of those laws, arguing that supporters’ free speech rights would be irreparably harmed if the ban and disclosure requirements remained in place for the campaign’s final week.

U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton refused the request, saying Family PAC hadn’t shown strong enough evidence to justify such an intrusion.

“I do not believe it is in the public interest for court, the week before an election, to intervene and change the rules of the game at the last minute,” he said.

Family PAC was created on Oct. 21, after the legal deadline for large campaign contributions had passed. That unfairly keeps people who want to donate large amounts of money from participating in the political process, lawyer Scott Bieniek argued Tuesday.

The requirement to identify all but the smallest donors, with that information readily available to the public, also frustrates some people’s right to speak their political mind, since a donation could draw retribution from others, Bieniek said.

“It takes one angry customer call to your boss to say, ‘I don’t like the fact that you employ someone who gave money to reject R-71 or approve R-71,’ ” he said.

Raising the fear of some Roman Catholic politicians that they will be refused communion for stances opposing church teaching, Bieniek said he could foresee a priest doing the same to rank-and-file parishioners who are identified as contributors to a campaign opposed by the church.

But Linda Dalton, a senior assistant state attorney general, said Family PAC’s request to suspend the campaign finance laws was based too heavily on such hypothetical scenarios — not actual, ongoing threats that free speech rights would be irreparably violated.

And this year’s general election, the state noted, is already happening. Since nearly all Washington state voters cast mail-in absentee ballots, voting actually begins when voters receive their ballots, which were sent to Washington households 18 days before Election Day.

All the other candidates and committees involved in the election have abided by the state’s campaign finance rules, which were originally established by voters in 1972, Dalton said.

“The state has an obligation to have a stable election process,” she said. “This request would severely disrupt all of that, especially if it’s only for one committee and one group.”

Based on the evidence at hand, the judge said the state’s system appears to balance competing First Amendment rights: People who want to endorse a political cause, and voters who need to be informed about issues up for vote.

On top of that, the campaign finance rules have “met with widespread public acceptance,” Leighton said.

The lawsuit itself will move ahead, with arguments on both sides fleshed out in the coming weeks.

Leighton gave lawyers a preview of his thoughts during Tuesday’s oral ruling, saying that his initial reading of the arguments makes him wonder whether the state’s three-week “blackout” of large contributions was a defensible intrusion into free speech.

“That is, I will say, the one aspect of this lawsuit that I think may have some real merit,” Leighton said. However, he added, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good argument to be made about the large-donation ban’s role in keeping the electorate properly informed.

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