A lawsuit in Alaska is posing a real threat to the era of “dark money” ushered in by Citizens United.
There’s a lawsuit in Alaska working to overturn the infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the door for super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. On Thursday, arguments began before Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson in an appeal of a 3-2 decision by the Alaskan Public Offices Commission.
The Commission decided in March to adopt federal law allowing super PACs, which are known as independent expenditure groups in Alaska, to spend unlimited funds on behalf of conservative and liberal political candidates.
Equal Citizens Case Eyes Citizens United Unlimited Donations
The case is known as the Equal Citizens case, as it was brought on behalf of three Alaskan residents by the non-profit Equal Citizens, an organization founded by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. According to NBC Anchorage, Lessig has spent the better part of the last decade fighting the 2010 Citizens United ruling by working to elect lawmakers who would defeat it.
Equal Citizens believes Alaska’s campaign watchdog agency should rein in donations to super PACs as they lead to political corruption.
Alaska has three major candidates running for governor who all have the support of independent expenditure groups. According to NBC Anchorage, most have raised little money, but one candidate Republican Mike Dunleavy is additionally supported by a small group of wealthy donors. Frances Dunleavy, the candidate’s investor brother, has contributed $275,000 and retired Anchorage real estate developer Bob Penney has given $250,000. State limits would have held them to $500 contributions in 2017 and 2018.
Alaska Called a “Good Domain” to Challenge Dark Money and Super PACs
Equal Citizens believes Alaska presents a particularly good domain to challenge the so-called “dark money” ushered in by Citizens United. Alaska had pre-existing campaign finance limits which were approved by a voter initiative and Alaska law allows residents to challenge Alaska Public Offices Commission decisions without “having to prove specific harm”, according to NBC Anchorage.
“We hope we can get the judge to say that the commission does have the power to just enforce the laws that are on the books, which impose some reasonable limits on the amount of money that groups and individuals can give to super PACs or other outside groups,” Equal Citizens’ attorney Jason Harrow said.
The Citizens United ruling of 2010 determined that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in support or opposition of a political candidate as long as they do it “independently” of the candidate. In adding to that decision, a lower court ruled that if corporations and unions were allowed to spend without limits on political activities, then that must mean you can give unlimited amounts – leading to the creation of “dark money” and super PACS.
Equal Citizens believes super PACS are unconstitutional, but they don’t believe they need to overturn Citizens United to reign in super PACS because it was a lower court’s decision that allowed unlimited donations. Equal Citizens says the lower court’s ruling to allow unlimited donations to PACs was based on too broad of an interpretation of Citizens United.
After Anchorage Superior Court Judge Peterson rules, the case is likely to go to the Alaskan Supreme Court.