RACINE — A nonprofit Wisconsin law firm filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Racine man on Thursday challenging the constitutionality of the state’s law capping campaign contributions to politicians and political organizations during a campaign year.
In his suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee against members of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, Racine resident Fred M. Young Jr. states that Wisconsin’s finance cap of $10,000 per year is unconstitutional, violating his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
“The court has recognized that money facilitates speech,” said Young’s attorney, Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Several court rulings “have made clear the only justification for limiting campaign contributions is to avoid the appearance or actual (risk of) quid pro quo corruption.” The “quid pro quo” exchange would be campaign contributions for votes.
But limiting a person’s overall contributions for the year “simply does not serve that interest, which is why we brought the lawsuit,” Esenberg said. “The U.S. Supreme Court has also made clear that this interest in preventing ‘quid pro quo corruption’ is not” accomplished by limiting overall campaign contributions. “It serves no legitimate state interest.”
That $10,000 is the aggregate amount, meaning a single individual cannot donate more than $10,000 per year, even when distributed among a variety of politicians, political action committees or organizations. And, $10,000 is the individual limit for candidates seeking a statewide office.
Young’s lawsuit seeks to have the aggregate campaign contributions cap of $10,000 invalidated, Esenberg said.
“It’s more severe than the federal limits. The aggregate limit (according to federal law) is something north of $40,000,” he said.
Young said he is a supporter of free speech rights. That $10,000 total yearly campaign contribution cap means he could not donate $10,000 to Scott Walker’s campaign, plus another $500 to his assemblyman. And that also limits the causes and legislative action — such as Act 10 and school choice — which he can support, Young explained.
“In general, campaign finance law is really out of control. I think there ought not to be financial limits, aside from (caps from individuals to single candidates that involve) quid pro quo corruption (risks),” Young said. “The appearance of corruption, quid pro quo corruption, should be avoided. I’m not opposed to individual limits.”
“We just received a copy of the lawsuit this afternoon. We don’t have any comment on it,” said Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin GAB. “The lawsuit deals with a state statute, and as the agency that administers that, we are the natural defendant.”
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Timothy Vocke, Gerald C. Nichol, Michael Brennan, Thomas Barland, Thomas Cane and David G. Deininger as GAB members.
“We have just received a copy of the lawsuit and will respond to it with our court filing,” Dana
Brueck, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, stated in an email Thursday.
She declined to provide further comment.
Two years ago, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group, filed a complaint with the GAB. In it, the group cited Young as violating the state’s $10,000 campaign cap by donating $10,500 to Rep. Gov. Scott Walker.
Young said that experience contributed to his decision to file suit now, but “it’s not what’s driving it,” he said Thursday.
The Walker campaign discovered “that they screwed up,” Young said. A check showed in its memo line that the donation was marked as a “gift from Sandra Young.”
“They failed to recognize that that was a donation from my wife, so they found that I didn’t violate (campaign finance law),” he said.
Young’s lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, but could seek to recoup the costs of his attorneys fees, Esenberg said.
Also on Thursday, Esenberg said his firm filed an amicus brief — known as a “friend of the court” brief — with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case pending before the justices. That case, Shaun McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, challenges the federal law regulating individuals’ campaign contributions.
Esenberg said that case “has the potential, really, to resolve this case.”
No court dates have been set in Young’s lawsuit.