PHOENIX — The lawyer for Republican legislative leaders has asked the state Court of Appeals to continue to let politicians take more money from donors, arguing in effect that the old limits were unconstitutional.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Brain ruled this month the higher contribution limits approved by the Legislature this year do not violated the state’s Voter Protection Act.
The Citizens Clean Election Commission appealed that decision, seeking to restore the previous, dramatically lower, contribution limits.
Attorney Mike Liburdi said lawmakers were within their rights in sharply boosting limits on campaign contributions.
More than just being within their rights, Liburdi argued, legislators were essentially obliged to scrap the limits because they illegally infringed on the First Amendment rights of both campaign donors and candidates. And that, he told the judges, precludes them from reinstating the old limits.
Hanging in the balance is how much money some candidates will be able to collect.
The law, which took effect earlier this month, lets legislative candidates accept up to $4,000 from individuals and political action committees, up from $440.
It also scraps the old $14,688 limit on how much candidates can take from all PACs for any election. Also gone is the $6,390 lid on the amount any one individual or PAC can give to all candidates in any given year.
Brain rejected arguments by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission that the move was illegal because it effectively amended the 1998 voter-approved system that allows candidates to get public funds if they don’t take private dollars.
That law also reduced the limits on private donations by 20 percent. But Brain said that does not mean lawmakers, in boosting the donations cap, illegally amended the Clean Elections Act.
Liburdi, representing Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin, said there’s no basis for returning to the old limits. More to the point, he told the judges, overturning Brain’s decision would be unconstitutional.
He said the old contribution limits are “some of the most austere in the nation.” The result, said Liburdi, limits the free-speech rights of people to contribute to candidates of their choice as well as the candidates’ ability to raise the necessary funds to wage an effective campaign.
Liburdi conceded the U.S. Supreme Court said there is not an absolute right of individuals to contribute as much as they want. But he said the justices also said any government-imposed restriction must be drawn in as tight a way as possible to deal with legitimate interests.
Proponents of public financing have argued that allowing people to avoid soliciting contributions from special interests, coupled with limits on private donations, helps prevent corruption, both real and perceived, and helps public confidence in the integrity of elected officials.
“These asserted interests, however, are neither compelling nor sufficiently important to justify restrictions on political speech,’’ Liburdi wrote, calling those goals “vague’’ and “abstract.”
The judges have scheduled a hearing for Oct. 15 to consider the issue. In the interim, the higher campaign-finance limits are in effect.