Judge blocks contribution cap for ballot initiatives

by | Jul 2, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Delivering a second punch to the Florida Legislature in two days, a federal judge on Thursday blocked a new law that would cap contributions to political committees backing ballot initiatives, saying the law runs afoul of the First Amendment.

The law, passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature this spring and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would impose a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees collecting petition signatures to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Relying on previous court decisions, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor issued a preliminary injunction as he found the law (SB 1890), which was slated to go into effect on Thursday, improperly curtails political speech.

“First, contributions to political committees that advocate for ballot initiatives are ‘beyond question a very significant form of political expression,’” Winsor wrote, partially quoting from legal precedent.

The state “bears the burden of justifying restrictions on political expression by advancing at least ‘a significantly important interest’ that is ‘closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms,’” Winsor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, wrote.

“Binding decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 5th Circuit (Court of Appeals) applied those principles and concluded that the First Amendment forbids limitations like those SB 1890 imposes,” the judge said in the 17-page decision.

Winsor’s ruling Thursday morning came after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle handed a blow Wednesday to DeSantis and the Legislature in an unrelated case. Hinkle blocked a new state law designed to punish social-media giants that boot users off their platforms, saying the law violates First Amendment protections. DeSantis, a close ally of Trump, pushed the law after Twitter and Facebook barred Trump from their sites after Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The American Civil Liberties Union and three political committees in May filed a lawsuit challenging the contribution cap, arguing it would suffocate the public’s ability to amend the state Constitution through the ballot-initiative process. The groups are trying to get three voting-related proposed amendments on the 2022 ballot.

In court documents filed last month, lawyers with Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office maintained that the law gives voters “assurance” that funding for the proposed constitutional amendments comes from numerous contributors instead of a handful of deep-pocketed donors. Moody’s office is representing the governor-appointed Florida Elections Commission in the case.

But the elections commission “has not shown a sufficiently important interest in ensuring that sponsors have broad financial support, rather than fewer, bigger contributors,” Winsor found.

“In short, the state has no significant interest in limiting speech of political committees with fewer (but bigger) contributors. Indeed, even when it comes to limits on contributions to candidates, the only significant interest the Supreme Court has found is to avoid corruption (or the perception of it), which is not at issue here,” the judge wrote.

Winsor also rejected the state’s argument that the cap should be upheld because it only restricts contributions during the signature-gathering phase of ballot-initiative campaigns. The cap would not apply after committees have submitted enough petition signatures to get on the ballot.

“It is unclear … why this would matter for First Amendment purposes,” he wrote, adding that nothing in previous court decisions about campaign contribution limits “suggested that states could restrict speech and expression surrounding ballot initiatives so long as the restriction covered only part of the initiative process.”

But after the ruling, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, issued a statement defending the legality of the $3,000 cap.

“The citizen initiative system was designed to be a mechanism for grassroots expression, not a shortcut for billionaires to bypass the political process,” Sprowls, an attorney, said. “SB 1890 contained limited and narrowly tailored measures to protect the integrity of the signature gathering process.”

The contribution cap was the latest salvo in Republican lawmakers’ long-running effort to make it more difficult for committees to pass proposed constitutional amendments. It also came after voters passed constitutional amendments in recent years on issues such as legalizing medical marijuana and raising the minimum wage — both largely bankrolled by wealthy Orlando lawyer John Morgan.

In a prepared statement, the ACLU hailed Winsor’s ruling.

The legislation “is just another attempt to undermine Florida citizens’ rights and we are pleased the court blocked it from going into effect today,” ACLU of Florida attorney Nicholas Warren said.

“The Florida Legislature has made it increasingly harder and costlier to propose citizens’ initiatives and get them on the ballot. We know this effort is unconstitutional because it violates Floridians’ First Amendment rights, and we look forward to getting the law permanently struck down,” he said in the statement.

During a hearing last week, witnesses for the ACLU and the committees testified that the threat of the contribution cap already was having a chilling effect on prospective donors to the ballot initiatives dealing with voting expansion.

“Right now we’re experiencing donors who are hesitant … because they’re concerned about the viability” of the campaigns once the $3,000 cap goes into effect, ACLU of Florida deputy political director Sara Latshaw said during the hearing.

But Elizabeth Ann Teegan, an attorney with Moody’s office who represents the elections commission, urged Winsor to give the state more time to consider the consequences of the law instead of issuing a preliminary injunction.

“Give us a chance to build a little bit of a record … to find out a little bit more about how these petitions are run and what really will be the impact,” Teegan said last week.

In court documents last month, Moody’s lawyers urged Winsor to uphold the contribution cap, arguing that the “temporary, targeted cap” is designed to “ensure the integrity of the state’s process for amending the Florida Constitution.”

The cap allows registered voters “to have assurance that the funding for the initiative is provided by many donors at no more than $3,000 each and that the significant funding needed for a successful initiative petition has not been provided by a small handful, or even a single, very well-heeled special interest donor,” the state’s lawyers argued.


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