Judge tosses out spending restrictions for speaker electionRules on contributing money to get speaker candidates elected violate First Amendment, he says.
By Laylan Copelin
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Texans will be able to spend money to aid the election or defeat of House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, or any other candidate of their choice as the result of a judge's decision released Monday.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that portions of state law restricting spending by individuals or groups on the state House speaker's race are an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
The so-called speaker's statute had limited individuals to spending no more than $100 on correspondence and barred groups and organizations, including corporations, unions and clubs, from giving "anything of value" to aid or defeat a candidate for speaker.
The law, written in 1973 in response to a legislative scandal, attempted to limit the influence of outsiders on an internal election in which only 150 House members vote.
Although testimony indicated that no one had ever been prosecuted under the law, Sparks concluded that the two provisions "significantly chill core political speech protected by the First Amendment."
Under a literal reading of the law, Sparks wrote, even a newspaper editorial, unsolicited by any political figure or group, would violate the law.
His ruling increases the likelihood of wealthy individuals and organizations weighing in on the speaker's race.
For example, this fall they could send direct mail to voters urging support or opposition of a House candidate based on who he or she backs for speaker. Or they may spend money on phone banks after the November election to urge a House member's constituents to contact their lawmaker before the next speaker's election Jan. 13.
The ACLU and two conservative organizations — Texas Eagle Forum and Free Market Foundation — had challenged the constitutionality of the law.
They praised the decision.
"This victory secures the rights of every citizen of Texas to be free to speak their mind about the speaker of the House race without the fear of being thrown into jail," said Kelly Shackelford, president of Free Market Foundation.
Advocates of campaign finance reform disagreed on the decision's impact.
Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, said campaign donors already can support one speaker candidate over another by directing their donations to candidates who support their choice for House leader.
"For those who wanted to affect the speaker's race, they had plenty of opportunities," McDonald said. "Overturning the speaker's statute won't have that much effect in the real world."
Fred Lewis, a lawyer and an advocate of tougher campaign finance laws, said the decision will embolden individuals and groups who had stayed in the background in the campaign for speaker.
"The result of this decision is going to be a disaster," he said. "We're going to have undisclosed corporate and church money flowing through our election process."
Hiram Sasser, the director of litigation for Free Market Foundation, said all other campaign finance laws remain on the books. He said those laws should prevent the disaster Lewis is predicting.
Election law prohibits corporations from spending money in connection with campaigns and requires groups to disclose money they spend to help get candidates elected. Whether those laws apply to spending under the speaker's statute is in question.
Anyone looking for guidance from state officials got none Monday. The Texas Ethics Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, was not saying Monday what impact the decision might have. The agency referred all questions to the attorney general's office, which said its lawyers are still reviewing the opinion.
The speaker is one of the state's most powerful officials because he controls the legislative agenda in the House by appointing the committee leaders and most of the members of important committees.
Craddick's attempt for a fourth term as leader has drawn unprecedented public interest because of the open revolt on the House floor during the 2007 legislative session.
It is rare for a sitting speaker to be challenged, but Craddick twice had to quell opposition from both Democrats and fellow Republicans. He already has drawn opponents from both parties.
His chief Republican rival, Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
Craddick's press secretary, Alexis DeLee, said it remains to be seen whether the judge's ruling changes the nature of the campaign for speaker:
"At the end of the day, it's up to the 150 members of the House to decide who the speaker will be, based on what's in the best interest of their district."