Supreme Court puts Alaska judge’s $500 campaign contribution limit in doubt


The U.S. Supreme Court today threw a big question mark on Alaska’s $500 limit on annual campaign contributions.

In the case of Thompson vs. Hebdon (the Alaska Public Offices Commission), the high court threw the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review their work, and the high court vacated the lower court’s decision upholding the $500 limit.

The Supreme Court decision implies that the $500 campaign limit in Alaska is invalid, but it would likely take a court injunction to stop it from being in effect, since it is in statute and the Alaska Public Offices Commission is bound to uphold it.

The high court said that the Ninth Circuit judges who had rejected the lawsuit by three Alaskans failed to consider a 2006 ruling by the Supreme Court against low contribution limits on political campaigns in Vermont. That state has since adjusted its contribution limit to $1,000.

In their lawsuit, Alaskans Jim Crawford, Aaron Downing, and David Thompson said they each donated $500 to campaigns, and wanted to donate more, but were stopped by the Alaska law prohibiting contributions of over $500. They took it to court and now-Attorney General Kevin Clarkson was their attorney.

Today, Clarkson is the one who must argue for preserving the law limiting contributions to campaigns, while arguing against Clarkson is his old law partner Robin Brena, who has become the new attorney for the group suing over the $500 limit, although a leading attorney in Washington, D.C. is the one who is handling the case.

Jim Crawford said it is a case of keen importance to conservatives in Alaska.

“Importantly, we tied our case to Citizens United and the free speech argument,” said Crawford. “What I want is a level playing field. I don’t want the labor guys to be able to contribute $2,500 to a campaign and individuals can’t. We’ll lose every single race so long as we have unions and liberals out there that have the financial advantage.”

“We’ve been trying this case for four years. The win at the U.S. Supreme Court is very, very solid. They seem bound by the precedent of Citizens United, and now we get a level playing field,” Crawford said.

The court, in its unsigned decision, seemed generally unimpressed with Alaska’s campaign finance laws:

“Alaska’s contribution limit is not adjusted for inflation. We observed in Randall that Vermont’s ‘failure to index limits means that limits which are already suspiciously low’ will ‘almost inevitably become too low over
time.’ The failure to index ‘imposes the burden of preventing the decline upon incumbent legislators who may not diligently police the need for changes in limit levels to ensure the adequate financing of electoral
challenges.’ So too here. In fact, Alaska’s $500 contribution limit is the same as it was 23 years ago, in 1996.”

The Supreme Court also noted Alaska’s individual-to-candidate contribution
limit is substantially lower than comparable limits in other States.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate opinion, but even she said she didn’t oppose remanding this case back to the Ninth Circuit.

She stated that Alaska’s reliance on resource development, specifically the oil industry, may make the state more prone to political corruption, and so that may justify the low limits.

“I do not oppose a remand to take account of Randall v. Sorrell,” she wrote. “I note, however, that Alaska’s law does not exhibit certain features found troublesome in Vermont’s law. For example, unlike in Vermont, political parties in Alaska are subject to much more lenient contribution limits than individual donors. Moreover, Alaska has the second smallest legislature in the country and derives approximately 90 percent of its revenues from one economic sector—the oil and gas industry. As the District Court suggested, these characteristics make Alaska “highly, if not uniquely, vulnerable to corruption in politics and government.” Ginsberg said Alaska is a special case and may warrant such a limit as the law currently provides.


  1. The 9th Circus strikes again. How is it possible for them to be so wrong so often? When SCOTUS sends your decisions back because they are wrong time and time again there is a problem.

  2. Jim Crawford is wrong trying to make this a liberal vs. conservative issue. This is really about whether or not Alaska or any other state in the union has the ability and power to set standards for our statewide and local election races.

    If you go with some one-size-fits-all decree set by the US Supreme Court that essentially says there are no restrictions on campaign contributions, then individuals, corporations and unions or other entities like PACS can pretty much give unlimited money. But Alaska, like Vermont and other states (mostly small states in terms of population), have enacted limits. These limits are not pegged on political philosophy or partisan orientation but instead designed to prevent huge sums of money donated by a select few from dominating an election. In Alaska, that means limiting funds by Outside entities whether they are corporate or made by unions or really wealthy individuals of any political orientation. It really doesn’t matter of you fear George Saros, the Koch operations, money from some national union or dough distributed by a big oil company.
    Shouldn’t we as Alaskans be able to set reasonable limits for our elections in terms of who gives money to candidates or campaigns? And if some state wants to go with no limits, that should be OK. But the idea that 5 unelected judges back in Washington, DC have the final answer on whether or how we Alaskans should set the limits on campaign contributions in our state and local elections is inconsistent with our republic and a great example of squelching local laws instead of supporting and sustaining reasonable local control.
    Alaska should adopt a sensible and reasonable limit on campaign contributions that work for the citizens of our state. That might raising the rate to a $1,000, or something along those lines to account for inflation. But the Attorney General of Alaska should first and foremost argue for and protect our right as a state through our elected officials to adopt sensible limitations on spending.
    Alaska is and ought to be open for business but that doesn’t mean we are open for political sale to the highest giver of cash, be they some rich liberal, some corporation with plenty of cash, a union or some political action committee with an agenda that might well be inconsistent with the majority of people actually living up here in this little sub-continent we call home.

    • I might be missing something but the US Supreme Court looked at the limitations with an eye to whether they restricted rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I often times do not like the results but the last time I checked, the US Constitution still applies to Alaska. And I guess that restricts the ability of the Alaska Legislature to limit contributions. Darn.

      • The issue of campaign spending contributions is not in the US Constitution. The SCOTUS has said that the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution regarding free speech means that unions, corporations and Political Action Committees can give unlimited campaign donations according to their “free speech” rights. So it is an interpretation of an amendment that is pretty much inconsistent with decades of legal analysis in terms of “speech” and that also ignores the standard 10th Amendment constitutional provision that gives the states the ability to set standards for elections, etc., etc.
        The SCOTUS has engaged in significant judicial overreach here and our state is throttled in an attempt to keep our elections from being bought by entities that really cannot speak, cannot vote or that represent Outside interests.

    • Then let us limit all the union PACs to $500! The people with most the influence in this state are the public sector unions who contribute almost 100% to liberal candidates. That is why this is a political issue.

  3. So soon we forget.
    Remember the Alaska political corruption probe which ran for –seven years–, conducted by the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, and the IRS?
    The investigation was focused on political corruption of nine then-current or former Alaskan state lawmakers, including Don Young and Ted Stevens.
    Remember it as “The Corrupt Bastard’s Club”, “Operation Polar Pen”, the investigation of the oil industry, fisheries and for-profit prison industries.
    Now we have the Great Alaska LeDoux Vote Experiment, which apparently succeeded.
    Now we have the Great Anchorage Mail-In Vote Scam, forced on Anchorage voters, which changed not-so-easily-corruptible traditional polling into readily corruptible mail-in balloting.
    And that’s only the skullduggery we know about.
    No, corruption is not necessarily the oil industry’s fault. They have to do business in this third-world environment, in which government is the premier cottage industry, in which the prevailing political culture requires customers to approach the throne through a thriving, growing lobbyist industry (no? look at the growth of Alaska’s “Lobbyist Directory” over the years!).
    Then, sadly, one realizes that Justice Ginsberg may well have a point.

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