SACRAMENTO — A federal judge struck down the core of California's voter-approved limits on campaign contributions Tuesday, a decision likely to reignite the feeding frenzy for political cash among politicians.
The ruling was praised by Republican and Democratic leaders alike as a boost for candidates who face millionaire opponents, whose self-financed campaigns were exempt from the limitations. But supporters of the restrictions vowed to appeal.
In a 43-page opinion, U.S. District Chief Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled that the limits in Proposition 208 were set so low that they unconstitutionally infringed on a candidate's ability to get his or her message to voters.
Karlton said the effect of Proposition 208 "is not only to significantly reduce a California candidate's ability to deliver his or her message, but in fact to make it impossible for the ordinary candidate to mount an effective campaign for office."
But in an unusual twist, the judge gave the state, which defended the law, and the proposition's sponsors a chance to try to salvage at least parts of the initiative by directing the state Fair Political Practices Commission to take the case to the state Supreme Court.
He said the state's high court might be able to "sever" such sections from the clearly unconstitutional features and rewrite them to make them legal. These include issues such as prohibiting use of campaign funds for officeholder expenditures.
Karlton said federal courts have no such reformulation authority over disputed state laws, but noted that the California Supreme Court has claimed such powers in certain limited cases.
The judge's order stops the FPPC from enforcing the law, a move that appeared to assure that the rush for campaign contributions in this election year will return to pre-Proposition 208 levels.
Proposition 208 was approved in November 1996 and was in place for only a year.
Shirley Grindle, who coordinated Orange County's Proposition 208 campaign, said the ruling leaves the state's campaign fund-raising rules "a mess."
"The message to the fat-cat contributors is, better open your checkbooks because you're going to be bombarded now," said Grindle, co-author of the county's $1,000-contribution limit, which remains in effect for countywide races. "I imagine the restaurants in Sacramento are celebrating, because no one could afford to hold any of those fancy fund-raisers" with Proposition 208 in effect.
Tony Miller, a Proposition 208 co-sponsor along with California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, said the ruling is "back to business as usual. We will see a horrendous pouring of cash into these campaigns, unless we can stop it. The political action committees, parties and politicians won at least this round."
Miller, a Democratic candidate who has said he will run for either lieutenant governor or secretary of state, and Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, said they intend to pursue an appeal.
Miller noted that last month the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed lawmakers a major defeat by overturning a lower court ruling and upholding term limits for lawmakers.
In November, another federal judge in Sacramento ruled against the Democratic and Republican parties and upheld voter enactment of the open primary.
Gov. Pete Wilson, a champion fund-raiser who described himself as a supporter of reasonable contribution ceilings, agreed that Proposition 208's limits were too low.
"As a practical matter, these limits inhibited the ability of all but the wealthiest to participate in our system of democracy," Wilson said in a statement.
Enacted by 61% of the voters, the California Political Reform Act of 1996 was promoted by its sponsors as an emergency brake on what they described as the corruptive influence of big money on state and local elected officials.
The initiative, which took effect Jan. 1, 1997, generally limited donations to $250 per election for legislative candidates and to $500 per election for statewide candidates such as governor. Political parties and so-called small contributor committees could give more.
If a candidate voluntarily agreed to limit campaign spending, the limits would double. The initiative also prohibited fund-raising during nonelection years, banned candidates from transferring funds to each other and outlawed contributions by lobbyists.
But opponents, including the Democratic and Republican parties, labor unions and other interests, argued in Karlton's court that the spending limits in the era of high campaign costs infringed on their 1st Amendment rights to free speech.
Among other issues, they argued that under Proposition 208, wealthy candidates would face no restrictions in spending their own money, but that candidates of modest means would be unfairly handcuffed by contribution limits--giving them virtually no chance of winning.