Thursday, June 25, 2009
Hawaii court shreds state’s argument in Tavares v Wong, now sky’s the limit on total corporate campaign contributions
by Larry Geller
What state legislators could not achieve this past session due to persistent protests, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals has gifted to them in an opinion filed this morning. A summary of the opinion is here.
The opinion minced no words—Campaign Spending Commissioner Barbara Wong’s interpretation of the statutes and of legislative intent was incorrect at every point. Contributions given to Maui Mayor Charmain Tavares were legal.
The case concerned transparency and also held that a corporation could give only $1,000 in total to all candidates. The Circuit Court and now the ICA did not go along with that. So campaign contributions can be given to each candidate, up the the limits prescribed by law, with no total limit at all.
Legislators’ coffers can now be filled with as much as corporations want to spread around. Had one or another of their proposed bills made it into law, there might have been a $25,000 or $50,000 limit in total contributions from any one corporation. In the end, that might have produced about the same result for lawmakers. Advocates worked against those high limits (about 23 other states and the federal government prohibit contributions from corporate treasuries).
The ICA dashed a key argument by Wong that any contribution, other than by a natural person, must be made as a non-candidate committee, saying that is simply not in the statute. This is the part that was mocked during oral arguments by Attorney William Crockett (for plaintiff Charmaine Tavares) after Deputy AG Russell Suzuki asserted it to the three-judge panel. He was painfully direct in saying that the statute simply didn’t require any such thing, a company giving a contribution is simply that, and not a non-candidate committee.
What’s next? Sen. Les Ihara and perhaps others will be introducing legislation next session to prohibit corporate donations directly to candidates, but allow them to continue to make $1,000/election donation to their PAC. Activists will continue to support their position that Hawaii should severely limit, if not ban, corporate contributions.
While most people struggle in these hard economic times, somewhere in the State Capitol they may be partying right now.
(thanks to attorney Lance Collins for quick pointer to the opinion)