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‘Limitations on contributions to political committees … have been struck down as limitations on free speech,” read part of then-Supervisor Barbara Kaufman’s opposition to Proposition O in the November 2000 voter guide. As The City prepares to pay $290,000 to settle a case against Prop. O, which will never again be enforced, I dare say the warning was prescient.
Prop. O was a ballot measure that set a limit on the amount of money any person could give to an “independent expenditure committee” at $500 per committee and $3,000 total to all committees. Those particular committees advocate for or against candidates and ballot measures but aren’t affiliated with the actual candidate or cause.
Voters narrowly endorsed Prop. O in 2000, and it remained in effect until 2007, when it was challenged by the Committee on Jobs and the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco, which immediately asked a federal judge to issue an injunction against Prop. O on the grounds that The City had not shown that such strict contribution limits were justified. Legally, political contributions are “speech” and you have to have a darn good reason to impinge on free speech.
The City argued that the purpose of the law was to prevent corruption, but the judge disagreed, writing that the anti-corruption argument only works when contributions are directly to candidates, not independent committees. According to the injunction order, the “absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent not only undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate, but also alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate.”
But the injunction was only temporary: the parties still needed to litigate the issues of whether the law violated the U.S. Constitution. As luck would have it, the city of San Jose passed a law very similar to Prop. O and the challenge to that law was already moving through the federal courts, so the San Francisco lawsuit was put on hold until we could see the result of the San Jose case.
In April 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appealsmade it official: Strict limits on contributions to independent expenditures are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
On Thursday, the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors will vote on the agreement that the City Attorney’s Office negotiated with the plaintiffs to settle the case: nullify the law and pay nearly $300,000.
Back in 2000, the San Francisco Republican Party warned that Prop. O was unconstitutional and wrote in the voter guide, “Hasn’t the City already wasted enough money on these losing battles?”