By Matthew Reichbach
Before campaign finance reforms were passed in 2009, the Wall Street Journal referred to New Mexico as the “political wild west.” In addition to a non-paid state legislature, no webcasting of legislative proceedings and no independent ethics board, the lack of campaign contribution limits was cited. Now, parts of the landmark contribution limit law that was passed in 2009, and which took effect the day after the 2010 elections, were put on hold by a district court judge.
U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson’s decision would allow state parties to receive unlimited donations from individuals or corporations. However, candidates themselves and organizations that coordinate with candidates would still only be allowed to receive donations of $5,000 per election from an individual or organization (with primaries counting as separate elections from the general elections).
The preliminary injunction went into effect immediately because the 2012 election cycle is already underway.
“Considering that the 2012 election cycle is in full swing and considering that the desired activities of Plaintiffs involve political free speech and association rights during an election year, this Preliminary Injunction shall remain in effect pending appeal unless stayed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Johnson wrote.
Citizens United lawyer James Bopp Jr. represented the State Republican Party in the lawsuit. As Clearly New Mexico reported at the time:
Joining the state Republican Party in the lawsuit are the county Republican Parties from Bernalillo and Dona Ana County, [State Sen. Rod] Adair [R-Roswell], Rep. Conrad James (R-Albuquerque), former New Mexico Republican Party chair Harvey Yates, Santa Fe resident Howard James Bohlander, and Hobbs resident Mark Veteto. New Mexico Turn Around, a political committee with ties to the state Republican Party and the Rio Grande Foundation, and the New Mexicans for Economic Recovery PAC are also plaintiffs on the suit.
Johnson decided to allow the unlimited contributions because of the controversial, and unpopular, Citizens United Supreme Court decision which allows unlimited funds to be used in aid or against a candidate.
Johnson quoted the decision by the Supreme Court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts:
“Laws that burden political speech are” accordingly “subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”
Already, Super PACs have been spending millions of dollars on behalf of presidential candidates before the Iowa caucuses and through today’s New Hampshire primary. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is the eighth-richest man in the United States and owns the Venetian Casino, gave $5 million to a pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC.
The Super PAC, which cannot coordinate with Gingrich or his campaign, is now spending more than $3 million on ads attacking Mitt Romney in South Carolina, which votes on January 21. Similar spending would be allowed in New Mexico under the judge’s injunction.
Challenges to Citizens United
While Citizens United is the basis for the rollback of sections of the campaign finance law, which for all intents and purposes never really went into effect, there are efforts to overturn the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United.
New Mexico’s own U.S. Senator Tom Udall wants a constitutional amendment that would overturn the decision.
“If the Supreme Court refuses to allow Congress and individual states to regulate the role of money in our elections, we must amend the Constitution to change that,” Udall wrote in an op-ed with U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) cosponsored a similar effort in the House.
The legislation calls for overseeing: “the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, State office; and the amount of expenditures that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates. Congress shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation.’’
Montana’s Supreme Court recently made headlines by saying Citizens United does not apply in Montana. However, even some liberals are unsure of the legality of the Montana Supreme Court’s decision. The Montana decision will be appealed and likely overturned.