By Craig Gustafson,
Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 12:08 a.m.
A federal judge has rejected a push by the county Republican Party that would have allowed political parties to give money to San Diego City Council candidates ahead of the June 8 election.
Instead, parties will have to wait until late June when a council-approved measure takes effect that sets a cap on such contributions at $1,000 per election.
The judge’s decision Wednesday is the latest ruling in a case that could have wide-ranging implications for how local elections are run in San Diego County and across the country. The case began in December when a group of Republicans, including the local party, sued the city claiming its restrictive campaign finance laws were infringing on their free speech rights. Specifically, they targeted the city’s $500 limit on individual contributions to candidates and restrictions on when candidates can begin collecting and spending money on a campaign.
U.S. District Judge Irma Gonzalez shelved three of the city’s laws in a Feb. 16 ruling, most notably its ban on political party contributions. But she also said parties couldn’t donate money until the city set an appropriate limit.
The council voted Tuesday for the $1,000 cap, based on a recommendation from the Ethics Commission, which monitors city campaigns and helps shape election laws.
The Republican Party accused the city of dragging its feet and asked Gonzalez to lift her stay so it could help candidates immediately.
In her ruling Wednesday, the judge said she didn’t feel compelled to rush the city’s process of adopting new laws, which requires a second reading and a 30-day waiting period before going into effect. That process likely won’t be finished until late June, well after the coming election.
Joe La Rue, the attorney leading the case against the city, said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision because it “eliminated the ability of the party to do what the judge said they ought to be able to do.” He said the judge made it clear in court Tuesday that she felt uncomfortable lifting the stay immediately, a decision that would have allowed parties to donate unlimited amounts of money to candidates because no cap exists.
La Rue said his clients haven’t decided whether to appeal the decision. The rest of the lawsuit’s campaign finance challenges are expected to go to trial later this year.