Freedom Foundation

State Supreme Court Decision Guts Citizen Enforcement of Campaign Finance Laws

In a decision released Thursday, the Washington State Supreme Court put the final nail in the coffin of a critical mechanism for enforcing state campaign finance laws that historically prevented a partisan attorney general and political appointees at the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) from turning a blind eye to campaign finance violations committed by their friends and political allies.

Since adopted by voters via citizen initiative in 1972, Washington’s campaign finance rules have always provided a process for concerned citizens to file suit against those who violate the law in the event government authorities refuse or neglect to take action.

Unfortunately, in 2018 and 2019, the Washington State Legislature all but eliminated the citizen action process for future violations, consolidating the power to enforce campaign finance rules in the hands of the PDC and attorney general.

At the time the law changed, the Freedom Foundation already had four active citizen action lawsuits underway, two against labor unions in Washington state and one against a national union for failure to disclose millions of dollars in political spending, and one against the state of Washington for illegally assisting in union political fundraising.

However, in its 5-4 decision, the justices threw out the Freedom Foundation’s remaining citizen action cases on a technicality based on an unprecedented and indefensible interpretation of the decades-old process, effectively letting the state and unions off the hook for their violations.

Freedom Foundation Director of Labor Policy Max Nelsen said, “The Freedom Foundation agrees with the dissenting justices, who explained that the majority’s interpretation of the law produced ‘absurd consequences’, noting ‘(V)oters cannot possibly have intended to create a citizen’s right to sue when the government will not but allow the government to bar every one of those suits with a procedural quirk’.”

The dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Gordon McCloud, accurately concluded the majority’s decision “… contradicts our principles of statutory interpretation and guts the right of citizens to enforce” the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

Nelsen continued, “For its part, the majority dismissed the absurdities of its ruling by observing that the Legislature had effectively done away with the citizen action process anyway, so its ruling would have no future consequences.

“Unfortunately, the combined machinations of the Legislature and state courts have now undone a critical component of our state’s voter-approved election transparency laws and paved the way for the PDC and Attorney General Bob Ferguson to selectively wield campaign finance laws as a shield behind which their political allies can hide and a cudgel with which to assault those with differing points of view.”

Nelsen concluded, “We’re already seeing the consequences play out before our eyes.”