Court upholds California anti-pay-to-play law banning votes that benefit campaign contributors

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at World Energy Paramount in Paramount Ca., Monday, May 1, 2023. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge has thrown out a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an anti-pay-to-play law that bars elected officials from voting on issues involving the people and companies that contribute to their campaigns.

In his ruling on Thursday, May 25, Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi found that the law, which went into effect in January, does not violate state or federal constitutions.

“The United States Supreme Court has recognized that preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance is a compelling state interest,” Sueyoshi wrote. “Defendants have provided sufficient evidence that SB 1439 sought to address this corruption by removing an exception for local elected officials in legislative history.”

SB 1439, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in November, requires public office holders, from city councils to school boards, water boards and county supervisors, to refrain from voting on and debating anyone who has contributed more $250 to your campaigns. . The ban covers contributions made 12 months before and after the vote. A similar requirement already existed for appointed officials to state and local boards, but SB 1439 expanded the California Political Reform Act to include most elected officials as well.

The lawsuit filed in February by a coalition of special interest groups sought to halt implementation of the law, alleging it is too broad, improperly alters the state’s Political Reform Act and infringes free speech protections related to the right to petition to governments. The coalition said it feared the law would impede participation in local politics by making it impossible for businesses and their employees to support elected officials in their communities.

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, co-authored the bipartisan bill with Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Victorville. Glazer called the judge’s decision a “home run ruling for those who want to end pay-to-play practices in our local governments.”

“The court ruling rejected all the claims of these special interest groups who fought to maintain their pay-per-play schemes,” Glazer said. “It is a blow against the power of the rich financial interests that are corrupting government decisions.”

Glazer said the law may be the “most important political reform in the last 50 years.”

“Don’t take the money, rebuild public trust. I think that’s the key message of today’s judge’s decision,” Glazer said.

SB 1439 passed unanimously in the Legislature in 2022 and was unopposed at the time. The law was backed by the good governance organization California Common Cause, which described it as “a long-awaited, common-sense pro-democracy reform” that already exists in other states and in certain California cities.

Repealing the law would go against the “will of the people,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause.

“This law protects Californians from the pay-to-play corruption and appearance of corruption that plagues our cities and counties, and helps restore faith in our leaders and our government,” he said.

The plaintiffs behind the lawsuit included the California Family Business Association, the California Restaurant Association, the California Retail Association, the California Construction Industry Association, the California Commercial Property Association, the Mesa California Business Roundup, Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, California Technology and Manufacturers Association, Rancho Cordova City Councilmember. Garrett Gatewood and Sacramento County Supervisor Pat Hume.

The coalition of business associations expressed disappointment in a joint statement, hypocritically calling the law for excluding state legislators and labor groups from the limitations.

“We remain concerned about the weaponization of this law by NIMBY organizations seeking to block new housing or competing business interests seeking to prevent competing business growth,” the statement read. “As we consider future legal options to protect the important constitutional right to free expression exercised through campaign contributions, we call on the FPPC to monitor and inform the public about the egregious abuses of this law.”

The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency charged with implementing and enforcing the law, served as defendant in the case and was represented by the California Attorney General’s Office. FPPC President Richard Miadich said the commission has continued to work on establishing regulations to fully implement the law, despite the lawsuit, and plans to adopt those new rules in June.

“We are pleased that the result supports a significant expansion of what is known as the ‘pay to play’ law,” Miadich said. “With a unanimous vote in the Legislature and the Governor’s signature, we can see the overwhelming bipartisan support for increasing transparency and accountability for elected officials to do what’s right for the public.”

See more about Silicon Valley