Federal lawsuit challenges MN campaign donor limits


By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

ST. PAUL, Minn. — That didn’t take long.

Days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on campaign donations in federal elections, two candidates and two individuals filed a federal lawsuit to get rid of a Minnesota campaign finance law.

The law effectively allows some individuals to donate more than others in state elections.

“The Supreme Court just passed a ruling allowing wealthy people to give as much as they want,” said Van Carlson, a donor from Circle Pines and plaintiff in the case. “I think the small guy ought to be able to have the opportunity to participate at the level they would like instead of being restricted.”

Institute for Justice lawyers who filed the challenge in the U.S. District Court for Minnesota view the state campaign finance restriction as more onerous than the limits on wealthy donors, ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last week.

The case focuses on the Minnesota “special sources limit,” which the plaintiffs contend “dishes out First Amendment rights on a first-come, first serve basis.” State campaign finance law allows up to $12,500 in contributions from PACs, lobbyists, political associations and individuals who donate more than one half of the contribution limit of $1,000.

Hypothetically, 12 individuals could donate $1,000 each to a candidate for state House, preventing anyone else from contributing more than $500 under the law. That violates the free speech rights of both donors and candidates, according to the plaintiffs.

Once the limit kicks in, no donations can be accepted from PACS or lobbyists. But the complaint only challenges the special-sources law as it applies to citizens.

“We’re not concerned about contributions from PACs or political funds or lobbyists,” said Anthony Sanders, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice. “We’re simply talking about somebody who is an ordinary person who’s giving more than half the limit. It should not matter whether they’re giving more than half the limit early in the game or late in the game.”

“As in many other jurisdictions, the state of Minnesota sets a limit on the amount of money an individual may contribute to a candidate for state office that the candidate will, in turn, use to speak to voters. But unlike in other jurisdictions, Minnesota arbitrarily cuts this individual contribution limit in half once a candidate has accepted more than a certain amount of money from certain types of donors,” states the complaint.

MN LAWMAKER SUES OVER DONOR LIMITS: Rep. Linda Runbeck joined donors and a former candidate in challenging constitutionality of law that allows some to donate more than others.

“This arbitrary treatment of allowing some similarly situated donors to contribute more than others violates the First Amendment rights of both donors and candidates.”

Both Carlson and fellow plaintiff Doug Seaton have been prevented from contributing the maximum amount in previous elections due to the special-sources limit.

“I’ve been stifled in the past only being able to give $500 depending on what time I give the money,” said Carlson. “You should have the same equal opportunity to help out and get your candidate elected as the neighbor does or someone else in the area.”

The legal challenge has significant implications for both individual donors and candidates in state campaigns. One of the candidates Carlson supports, Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, joined in asking the court for a preliminary injunction to prevent the limits from being enforced for every candidate in Minnesota until the case is adjudicated.

“We know the real world is now in which outside donors are targeting our state because we’re a swing state decide to spend gobs of money here,” said Runbeck, who’s running for re-election. “We need more ammo as candidates.”

Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board officials were in the initial stages of reviewing the complaint and related case law. Executive director Gary Goldsmith said the campaign finance watchdog will discuss the case at its April 22 meeting.

If the court strikes down the special-sources limits, Minnesota state candidates still would have a cap on the amount of PAC or lobbyist money raised but will no longer return donations from individuals who contribute more than $500.

Contact Tom Steward at tsteward@watchdog.org.