Judge tosses parts of state's new campaign finance law

Thursday, March 29, 2007
Paul LaVota

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A judge on Wednesday permanently blocked a law that had barred elected officials and challengers from raising money during the legislative session, but upheld the removal of Missouri's campaign contribution limits.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan in January temporarily blocked the ban on fund-raising by lawmakers, statewide officials and candidates during the legislative session, which runs from early January through mid-May each year.

Wednesday, the judge issued a final judgment saying that provision violates free-speech rights.

Callahan said the Republican-led Legislature did not address the concerns raised by a federal judge who struck down a similar fund-raising ban in 1996. The prior law was enacted by a Democratic-led legislature.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh said the old law was problematic because it was not limited to incumbents and because it went so far as to prevent candidates from spending their own money, because of the way Missouri defines a contribution.

Charlie Shields

But Callahan let stand a main element of the 2006 law, the elimination of individual campaign contribution limits.

House Democratic leaders called for restoring those limits.

"We now have the worst of both worlds -- unlimited donations, all the time," said Rep. Paul LeVota, D-Independence. "To prevent a flood of money from washing away the integrity of Missouri's political process, we must immediately reinstate the campaign contribution limits."

Other parts of the legislation that remain intact are a ban on cash contributions to candidates from political parties, though in-kind contributions could continue; imposition of new Ethics Commission reporting requirements on lobbyists; a prohibition on lobbyists paying for lawmakers' out-of-state travel without prior legislative approval; and a ban on campaign finance complaints against a candidate within 15 days of an election.

The judge's ruling against the legislative-session fundraising ban "is not the end of the world. A lot of the transparency issues are still there," said Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who helped handle the campaign finance legislation last year.

The judge also threw out a few other provisions.

He rejected a section of the law that disqualified candidates who are delinquent on property taxes for their home or for a license office. He also threw out a section barring people convicted of state felonies from running for office.

The judge said those sections violated constitutional requirements that prohibit a bill from having too many subjects and from changing from its original purpose.

The lawsuit argued that the provision tied to paying taxes violates the constitution's equal protection clause because the law does not disqualify those late on taxes for their farms, apartment buildings or other corporations.

The judge did not address that argument, saying the plaintiff didn't have standing to raise those claims as he wasn't behind on paying his taxes.

Jefferson City attorney Chuck Hatfield filed the lawsuit on behalf of James Trout, of Webster Groves, who ran for the Legislature but lost and plans to run again. In particular, Trout wanted to be able to spend his own money on his campaign while the Legislature is in session.

Hatfield applauded tossing out parts of the law but said the constitutional problems the judge found should force the entire measure to be struck down. Hatfield said he expected to appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court to have the entire law declared unconstitutional.

"We're pleased that the judge agrees on this. We had hoped he would agree more," he said.

Trout said the chief aim of his lawsuit was to restore the campaign contribution limits, which the judge did not order.

Without contribution limits, "it makes it less likely that citizen politicians get elected and more likely that special interests get elected," Trout said.

The attorney general's office, which defended the law, said it was reviewing the ruling Wednesday.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: