Campaign finance reform advocates ask Oregon Supreme Court for a new hearing

The latest legal filing, following a rejection by the court, is a last attempt to get campaign finance limits before voters in November

By: - March 23, 2022 3:17 pm

The Oregon Supreme Court could have two new members before Gov. Kate Brown’s term ends. (Salem Reporter)

A coalition of good government groups is asking the Oregon Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that would keep voters from deciding in November whether the state should limit money in politics.

The court on Friday rejected a request from the proponents of three proposed ballot initiatives to overturn a decision by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan that would prevent the initiatives from appearing on the November ballot. Petitioner Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who cofounded Honest Elections Oregon, described a new legal filing asking the court to reconsider their case as a “Hail Mary.”

Kafoury, League of Women Voters President Rebecca Gladstone and James Ofsink, president of the advocacy group Portland Forward, spearheaded three slightly different proposed ballot initiatives that would limit how much money individuals, unions and political action committees could give candidates or political action committees. The initiatives would also create a new public funding system and require all political advertisements to include disclaimers about who paid for them. They planned to send one to the ballot after determining through polling which was most popular with voters.

Fagan in February said none of the proposed measures met a technical requirement laid out in a 2004 court ruling that requires petitioners to include the full text of the state law they seek to change. 

In a 42-page appeal filed shortly before midnight Wednesday, the petitioners laid out several arguments why the court should take their case. 

First, Oregonians who want to change the law through the citizen initiative process need clarity about the “full text” requirement, they argued. Second, the normal court process takes months or years and would prohibit any measure from making it to the ballot. And finally, the court agreed to hear a similar case involving a candidate for governor who needed a rapid court decision to know whether he could appear on the ballot. 

Good government groups have long pushed for campaign finance reform in Oregon, one of only five states that has no limits on how much money people or groups can give candidates.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2020 that would allow state and local governments to set contribution and spending limits, but efforts by some state legislators to enact state laws have been stymied. Both labor unions, which overwhelmingly support Democrats, and business groups oppose attempts to limit their influence on elections. 

The three initiatives were an attempt to have voters enact campaign finance limits. But in their latest legal filing, the petitioners said the questions raised by Fagan’s decision to reject their proposed laws have implications that reach far beyond the campaign finance initiatives. 

Fagan interpreted the requirement that petitions include the “full text” of the state law that would be changed by the initiative differently than previous secretaries of state, they wrote. 

“Future initiative proponents have no guidance as to what form of drafting the ‘full text’ requirement demands,” the legal filing said. “Such uncertainty chills the speech of all those who wish to participate.”

Fagan rejected the petitions in part because they didn’t print a version of the state law that took effect on Jan. 1, several weeks after the three filed their petitions. That interpretation would allow legislators to sabotage ballot initiatives by passing minor changes to the sections of state law affected by a proposed ballot measure, they contend.

When the court initially refused to take the case, justices said Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink could have avoided any trouble by filing their initiative earlier. In their appeal, they noted that the court took a different approach when former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof asked the court to order Fagan to let him run for governor.

Kristof filed to run as a Democrat on Dec. 20, a few weeks after Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink filed their petition. Fagan informed him on Jan. 6  that he didn’t meet a constitutional requirement that candidates for governor must live in Oregon for the three years prior to the general election. 

Kristof promptly asked the Supreme Court to overrule Fagan. Both Kristof and Fagan urged the court to decide the case quickly, noting that they had just two months before candidate filing ended. The court eventually ruled that Kristof didn’t meet residency requirements on Feb. 17. 

Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink contend that their plea for relief from the court  is just as worthy as Kristof’s.

Fagan will have the chance to respond to the latest legal filing by 11:59 p.m. this Thursday, and the Supreme Court will decide whether to reconsider the case at some point after that. In the meantime, the petitioners plan to start preparing a potential 2024 ballot measure and working with legislators to pass campaign finance limits during the 2023 legislative session.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.