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Irvine's Campaign Funds Law Is Unconstitutional

July 31, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge has declared unconstitutional an Irvine ordinance passed in 1995 that barred independent groups from spending more than $340 to campaign for or against a candidate.

Irvine agreed Tuesday to stop enforcing its ordinance, which was challenged in 1999 by the Lincoln Club of Orange County, according to a settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler. Irvine also will pay the conservative political club $125,000 in legal fees.

The city's ordinance is similar to campaign restrictions in five other Orange County cities and in the county. The Irvine law prohibited two or more people from paying for political advertising for or against a city candidate if any one of them had contributed more than $340.

The restriction affected organizations such as the Lincoln Club, whose members pay annual dues of $2,000 and donate to federal, state and local Republican candidates. Limiting spending on Irvine candidates stifled free speech and free association, club president Michael Capaldi said.

"Quite simply, the ordinance meant that your neighbor and you could not join forces to buy a fair-sized newspaper ad to express your frustration with a candidate, no matter how legitimate your grievance," he said. "... Irvine played fast and loose with its own citizens' free-speech rights."

The club became involved in city politics in 1990 when it spent $25,000 on an independent campaign opposing then-Mayor Larry Agran. Agran lost his seat but was elected to a second stint on the City Council in 1998. He was elected mayor again in 2000 and faces reelection in November.

The Lincoln Club was formed in 1962 to promote Republican candidates and conservative causes. A political action committee set up by the club has donated to state and federal candidates, and members are encouraged to give individually.

Some critics have worried that the club's involvement in local elections could inject party politics into local races that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

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