Court upholds anti-pay-to-play law barring votes benefiting campaign contributors

California

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge has rejected a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an anti-pay-to-play law prohibiting elected officials from voting on matters involving the people and companies who contribute to their campaigns.

In his ruling Thursday, May 25, Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi determined the law, which went into effect in January, does not violate either the 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 eliminating an exception for local elected officials in the 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 recuse themselves from votes and discussions involving anyone who has contributed more than $250 to their campaigns. The prohibition covers contributions made 12 months before and after the vote. A similar requirement already existed for officials appointed to local and state boards, but SB 1439 expanded California’s Political Reform Act to include most elected officials as well.

The lawsuit filed in February by a coalition of special interest groups attempted to stop the implementation of the law, alleging it is overly broad, improperly alters the state’s Political Reform Act and infringes on free speech protections related to the right to petition governments. The coalition said it feared the law would prevent involvement in local politics by effectively making it so businesses and their employees could no longer 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 that want to end pay-to-play practices in our local governments.”

“The court’s ruling rejected all claims by these special interest groups who fought to maintain their pay-to-play schemes,” Glazer said. “It is a strike against the power of wealthy financial interests who are corrupting governmental decisions.”

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

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

SB 1439 passed unanimously in the Legislature in 2022 and did not have any opposition at the time. The law was backed by the good governance organization California Common Cause, which described it as “a common sense and long overdue pro-democracy reform” that already exists in other states and in certain California cities.

Striking down 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 the appearance of corruption that plagues our cities and counties, and helps to restore faith in our leaders and our government,” he said.

The plaintiffs behind the lawsuit included the Family Business Association of California, California Restaurant Association, California Retailers Association, California Building Industry Association, California Business Properties Association, California Business Roundtable, Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange, California Manufacturers & Technology Association, Rancho Cordova City Councilmember Garrett Gatewood and Sacramento County Supervisor Pat Hume.

The coalition of business associations expressed disappointment in a joint statement, calling the law hypocritically 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 looking to prevent competitor business growth,” the statement reads. “While we consider future legal options to protect the important constitutional right to freedom of speech exercised through campaign contributions, we call upon the FPPC to monitor and report to the public on nefarious abuses of this law.”

The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency tasked with implementing and enforcing the law, served as the defendant in the case and was represented by the California Attorney General’s Office. FPPC Chair 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 gratified the outcome will uphold an important expansion of what’s known as the “pay-to-play” law,” Miadich said. “With a unanimous vote in the Legislature and signature by the Governor, we can see the overwhelming, bipartisan support for increasing transparency and accountability of elected officials to do what’s right for the public.”

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