Court Partially Strikes Down Campaign-Finance Laws of Austin, Texas

In the spirit of the 2018 midterms, campaign-finance laws in Austin, Texas were recently challenged by Donald Zimmerman, a former City Council member.  Specifically, he challenged three restrictions of a law enacted via a ballot initiative in 1997.  These three restrictions were (1) a $350 cap on contributions per contributor per election, (2) a prohibition of political contributions more than 6 months before an election, and (3) a requirement to disburse left over campaign funds to contributors, a charity, or the Austin Fair Campaign Fund.  (The dollar amounts have been inflation-adjusted since 1997.)  Zimmerman argued in his suit that these restrictions are unconstitutional abridgements of the First Amendment right to free speech.

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On the first point, Zimmerman argued that the $350 per-contributor limit was, in reality, a content-based restriction on speech and therefore should be subject to strict scrutiny which he argued it would not pass.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Zimmerman, ruling that Austin’s interest in preventing even the appearance of corruption justifies its limit, supported by the fact that the public had overwhelmingly voted for it under the impression it would prevent quid pro quo corruption. The Court also found that the limit is in line with other states’ and does not produce an indirect burden on campaigning, passing the more relaxed scrutiny the Court found appropriate.

But with regard to the 6-month restriction, the Court ruled in favor Zimmerman’s favor.  Like the per-contributor contribution cap, the restriction must serve the City’s interest in preventing corruption or even the appearance of it, and the City did not provide evidence to the Court to show that a contribution more than 6 months before an election would influence corruption any more so than a contribution inside that time.

For the final campaign-finance restriction at issue, the Court also ruled in Zimmerman’s favor.  The City had argued that Zimmerman was not injured by the disgorgement provision, since the $1,200 he had after his 2014 campaign was under the $20,000 limit he was allowed to keep for officeholder expenses.  The Court disagreed, ruling that not allowing an officeholder to use excess campaign funds in another campaign places an indirect burden on expenditures, putting it under heightened scrutiny for which the City was unable to justify the restriction as being narrowly tailored to prevent corruption.

Case: Zimmerman v. City of Austin, No. 16-51366 (5th Cir. Feb. 1, 2018) (opinion here)

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