Federal judge skeptical of challenge to a state campaign financing law

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge expressed skepticism about the motives of a libertarian group that asked him on Monday to block enforcement of Florida's campaign finance law governing political action committees and similar groups.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle did not immediately rule on the Institute for Justice's request for a temporary injunction that would cover groups raising between $500 and $5,000 before the Nov. 2 election.

The Arlington, Va.-based organization filed on behalf of four clients from the Sarasota area who ultimately want the law thrown out.

Until then, an injunction would let them pool money for radio ads opposing a proposed state constitutional amendment on land planning without registering with the state and telling who gave the cash and what it was spent on. They also want Hinkle to block another requirement that the ads include a disclaimer saying who bought them.

Hinkle questioned whether the lawsuit was "just a little too convenient" because it was filed little more than a month before the election and claims the plaintiffs plan to spend $600, just $100 more than the minimum for which reporting is required. He was worried it might be a ploy to get a ruling based on a hypothetical rather than factual scenario.

"If a group of law students got together to create a fictitious case this couldn't have been done better," Hinkle said. He asked the institute's lawyer, Paul Sherman, "Are these real people?"

Sherman assured the judge they are and argued they have a right to free political speech without burdensome state regulations. The lawsuit says they won't buy the ads if they have to comply with the law.

"If they don't get to speak before this election their opportunity will be lost forever," Sherman said.

Hinkle said he was unsure if he'd decide by a week before Election Day as Sherman requested so he'd have enough time to appeal if necessary.

The institute has filed challenges against similar laws in at least two other states, Colorado and Washington. It also has launched a campaign urging states to avoid litigation by changing their disclosure laws.

Sherman based his argument on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate and union political spending.

The state's lawyer, Jonathan Glogau, said that ruling gave corporations and unions the same right individuals have to spend on behalf of candidates or issues free of disclosure requirements. If they pool money with other entities or individuals, though, those funds are still subject to disclosure requirements, Glogau said.

He also said the state's filing and disclosure requirements are not burdensome because each consists of one or two pages that can be filled out in minutes.

Federal judge skeptical of challenge to a state campaign financing law 10/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 11:14pm]

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