Monday, January 22, 2007
Court Throws Out Limit on Contributions to Recall Campaigns
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A San Diego ordinance applying a $250 contribution limit to campaigns to recall city officeholders is invalid because the city has not shown a justification for the resulting burden on free speech, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
Overturning a district court ruling, the panel said the city failed to present sufficient evidence to justify denial of an injunction and declaratory judgment sought by a citizens group that tried to recall a San Diego councilman in 2003.
The group, Citizens for Clean Government, was formed to seek the removal of City Councilman Scott Peters. San Diego requires a recall election if proponents obtain the signatures of at least 15 percent of the voters in the council district during the period beginning 21 days, and ending 60 days, after notice of intent to circulate the petition is published.
In Peters’ case, proponents were unable to collect enough signatures, and the councilman went on to win another term in 2004.
Preliminary Injuction Denied
The group originally appealed after U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez denied its motion for preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, and the parties subsequently stipulated to an appealable final judgment.
Senior Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall, writing for the appellate panel, explained that because there is now a final judgment, appellate review is broader and the court is not bound by its previous decision.
Hall rejected the plaintiff’s argument that a recall campaign is similar to one involving a ballot measure. The Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have rejected limits on contributions to ballot measure campaigns, finding that lawmakers were unable to identify an interest sufficiently important to justify such limits.
As to campaigns for office, however, the courts have upheld what were found to be reasonable limits tied to important public interests, such as avoiding the reality and the appearance of corruption resulting from the giving and acceptance of large donations.
Hall said the district judge erred in upholding the limit as a matter of law, rather than requiring the city to offer evidence as to how the law served its intended purpose. The city, she noted, had conceded at oral argument that there was no evidence in the record of corruption or potential for corruption in connection with the recall process.
“We cannot hold that hypotheticals, accompanied by vague allusions to practical experience, demonstrate a sufficiently important state interest,” the judge said.
The panel remanded the case to the district court so that the city may attempt to present the necessary evidence.
Hall’s opinion was joined by Michael Daly Hawkins and Sandra S. Ikuta.
The case is Citizens for Clean Government v. City of San Diego, 04-56964.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company