CSA: Election law battle over | AspenTimes.com
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CSA: Election law battle over

Allyn Harvey

Common Sense Alliance spokesman Jeffrey Evans thinks his group’s challenge of Pitkin County’s election code is essentially over now that the county has agreed to suspend enforcement of the law.

“I don’t think we have any further reasons to worry about contribution limits on ballot questions or spending limits on any campaign in the future,” Evans said.

The county’s spending limit of $1 per registered voter and contribution limit of $500 per person or organization were challenged in federal district court in Denver last month. Evans and the Common Sense Alliance allege those laws, contained in the county’s home rule charter, are unconstitutional, basing much of their argument on the 1976 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the case of Buckley vs. Valeo.

In that case, the court ruled that governments are allowed to set limits on direct contributions to candidates, but they can’t control the amounts raised and spent by individuals and organizations not directly tied to the campaign. The ruling is seen by campaign finance reform advocates as one of the biggest hurdles they face.

As part of the suit, the Common Sense Alliance filed a motion for a temporary injunction barring the county from enforcing its caps until the case is resolved. The Redstone-based political group is opposing two transportation-related questions on the November ballot, and it was seeking the injunction to allow for fund raising and spending beyond the county limits.

On Wednesday, the Pitkin County Commissioners decided not to challenge the motion at a court hearing that was scheduled for tomorrow, instead agreeing to voluntarily suspend enforcement at least through the upcoming election.

“I think the two issues we’ve raised in our complaint are so clear as a matter of constitutional law that there should be no need for the preliminary hearing on a contested injunction,” said Common Sense Alliance attorney Edward Ramey. “I think they made the right decision at this point.”

Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the complexity of a case that would be asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn several rulings issued over the last 25 years on the subject of campaign finance makes it difficult to put up a viable defense on short notice.

“This is not an easily disposed of legal matter, so in order to buy the time we need to respond, we’ve agreed to suspend enforcement,” Ely said. He said he expects the commissioners to use the extra time to direct him on how to conduct the lawsuit.

Cost has been one of the biggest subjects in the closed discussions the commissioners have had in the last two weeks. Commissioner Patti Clapper, who has said she would rather amend the county charter than get into an expensive lawsuit, said she’s been told a case that makes it all the way to the Supreme Court could cost $500,000.

Two possibilities include joining with other jurisdictions that are facing similar challenges or finding private groups willing to support the effort. Another option is for the county to use its discretionary funding to hire the constitutional lawyers needed to conduct a viable defense; or they could drop it altogether and change the rules.

“I think we need to look at what’s constitutional and what’s not,” Clapper said. “I don’t think we should have an unconstitutional law on our books.”

But she may be alone, or at least in the minority, on that issue. Commissioners Mick Ireland, Dorothea Farris and Leslie Lamont have all expressed a desire to defend the county code, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Ireland, the focus of much of the Common Sense Alliance’s ire, has been quoted often supporting a full hearing of the issue. “It’s a matter of principle, and one I think that is worth pursuing,” he said.

Lamont says she would rather see a private organization or collection of individuals from around the county step up to defend the home rule charter. She points out that the election rules have received voter approval three times in 20 years, and wonders why people aren’t willing to get behind it. But if they won’t, “then it’s the Board of County Commissioners’ job to defend the home rule charter.”

Farris has said she wants to defend the limits if possible, but she remains the most circumspect of the three. “At some point we’re going to defend our right to impose these limits, but we’re not going to do it at this point,” she said.

But Evans can’t see a time when they’ll ever have the case they need to defend a law that apparently clearly violates the Constitution.

“Getting rid of these laws will put us in line with every other jurisdiction in Colorado,” he said. “For that matter, it will put us in line with every other jurisdiction in the United States.”


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