Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission v. Brain (4/2/2014)

April 28, 2014

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That A.R.S. § 16-941(B) Provides A Formula For Calculating Campaign Contribution Limits For Traditional Candidates For Statewide And State Legislative Offices.

In 2013, the Arizona Legislature passed HB 2593, which amended A.R.S. § 16-905 by increasing campaign contribution limits, eliminating restrictions on the aggregate amount of money candidates for office can receive from political committees, and eliminating restrictions on the amount of money individuals can contribute to political committees.  The Citizens Clean Elections Commission and others (the “Commission”) sued asking the superior court to declare H.B. 2593 unconstitutional, as applicable to nonparticipating or traditional candidates, and to enjoin the Secretary of State from implementing it.  The Commission alleged that the Citizens Clean Elections Act, A.R.S. §§ 16-940 to –961, fixed campaign contribution limits as they existed in 1998 and that the legislature could not alter those limits without complying with the Voter Protection Act (VPA). 

The superior court denied the Commission’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the Commission did not have a strong likelihood of success on the merits. 

The Commission filed a special action and the Court of Appeals accepted jurisdiction.  The Court of Appeals granted relief, holding that when the voters enacted the Citizens Clean Elections Act, they fixed campaign contribution limits as they existed in 1998.  As a matter of statutory construction, the Court of Appeals further held that HB 2593 was preempted to the extent it altered campaign contribution limits applicable to non-participating candidates.

The Arizona Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction to decide whether A.R.S. § 16-941(B) provides a formula for calculating campaign contribution limits for nonparticipating candidates or instead fixes those limits.  In a 3-2 decision, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the statute provides for a formula rather than a fixed limit.  The Court found that the statute was reasonably susceptible to both interpretations but that for a number of reasons the statute was best interpreted as establishing a formula.  First, the Court noted that if voters had intended to fix contribution limits, they could have done so by specifying dollar amounts rather than using a percentage formula incorporating another statute.  Second, the Court found that the limits in A.R.S § 16-941(B) were different than the fixed amount limits specified elsewhere in the Citizens Clean Elections Act.  A.R.S § 16-941(B) included no inflation-adjustment mechanism, which was included in other provisions of the Citizens Clean Elections Act.  Third, interpreting A.R.S. § 16-941(B) as providing fixed limits would widen the voter-approved gap between these limits and those for candidates not subject to the act.   Fourth, a fixed-limit interpretation would create a “needlessly confusing system.” And lastly, the Court noted that nothing in the publicity pamphlet for the 1998 election suggests that voters were aware that A.R.S § 16-941(B) fixed contribution limits at the 1998 levels. 

Vice Chief Justice Bales dissented, and Chief Justice Berch joined.  Justice Bales agreed with the majority that A.R.S § 16-941(B) was ambiguous but argued that the more plausible interpretation was that the voters in 1998 intended to fix the contribution limits.  Addressing the history of voter-approved contribution limits and analyzing points raised by the majority, Justice Bales concluded that A.R.S § 16-941(B) is better construed as lowering the contribution limits as they  existed in 1998 rather than tying them to increases the legislature might later enact. 

Osborn Maledon served as co-counsel for several of the Petitioners.