Alaska judge: APOC abused discretion, should enforce campaign contribution limits
An Anchorage superior court judge has ruled in favor of three Alaskans who filed complaints with the Alaska Public Offices Commission alleging two groups violated statutory limitations on political contributions.
The case was at the center of a push from Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Equal Citizens to put an end to Super PACs across the country with hopes of bringing the suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to the decision, Donna Patrick, James K. Barnett and John P. Lambert filed separate but similar complaints in 2018 to APOC saying two groups — Interior Voters for John Coghill and Working Families of Alaska — accepted monetary contributions that exceeded limitations of an Alaska statute. Both groups were created to support political candidates.
"Patrick alleged that Interior Voters accepted $2,500 from one individual, $2,000 from two other individuals. Those contributions exceeded the $500 annual statutory limit for individuals," the decision reads. "Patrick alleged that Interior Voters accepted $47,000 from a specific group, and Working Families accepted $50,000 or more from each of three unions or union political funds? (sic) Those contributions exceeded the $1,000 statutory annual limit for groups."
Though the statute calls for strict limits on campaign contributions, APOC denied all three complaints, basing their decision on a 2012 advisory opinion where the commission questioned the constitutionality of the statute.
This opinion was influenced by a 2010 case — known as Citizens United — where the Supreme Court ruled a federal statute that prevented "corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as an 'electioneering communication' or for speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate" was in violation of the First Amendment.
After APOC released the opinion, the commission stopped enforcing the statute, which paved the way for Super PACs to receive large monetary donations.
According to the decision, Patrick, Barnett and Lambert appealed to the superior court after their complaints were denied by APOC. On Monday, the court ruled that by continuing to follow its advisory opinion, APOC "has construed the constitutional restrictions on these types of contributions too broadly, ignoring subsequent federal precedent."
Anchorage Superior Court Judge William F. Morse concluded APOC "abused its discretion" by not revising their opinion when cases following Citizens United set a different precedent, including the decision reached in Thompson v. Dauphinais, which upheld the constitutionality of the Alaska statute in 2016.
"When APOC issued its advisory opinion in 2012, the impact of Citizens United was uncertain. However, it was clear that federal and state courts would be exploring its scope and meaning in cases throughout the nation," the decision reads. "Freezing the advisory opinion in the new world of 2012 and ignoring subsequent judicial developments was not reasonable."
The judge also concluded APOC should not have dismissed Patrick, Barnett and Lambert's complaints and decided to reverse that decision. According to the decision, the court believes APOC should reinstate the enforcement of the campaign contribution limits as set in the Alaska statute.
The case will now head back to APOC, where the commission will need to reconsider the complaints.
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