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A constitutional challenge was filed Monday over a state law that bars candidates for elected office from accepting or soliciting campaign contributions more than two years before an election.

Peggy Jones, a longtime political activist from Pulaski County, contends in the lawsuit that Arkansas Code 7-6-203(e) imposes a blackout period that limits her right to political expression by preventing her from donating money to people she wants to support as candidates in the 2022 election cycle.

She said the law, adopted by Arkansas voters in 1996 as part of a package of amendments to state campaign finance laws, also stifles core political activity by preventing the candidates she favors from raising funds required to run an effective campaign.

The lawsuit, filed on Jones' behalf by attorney John Tull of the Quattlebaum, Grooms and Tull firm in Little Rock, names as a defendant Larry Jegley, in his capacity as prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County, who would have to enforce the law in Jones' case. It also names as defendants the five members of the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which levies fines against candidates who accept contributions in violation of the blackout period.

"It's the only way we know to get the law overturned," Tull said Monday, explaining why those defendants were named in their professional capacities.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Little Rock and was assigned to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, who is being asked to declare the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment and to bar its enforcement. In 1997, Wilson oversaw a lawsuit that challenged six of seven amendments approved under a campaign finance measure known as Initiated Act 1, which reduced contribution limits for certain offices.

As a result, each of the challenged amendments was invalidated, including a blackout period that barred contributions to or by elected officials within 30 days of a legislative session.

The seventh amendment, however, became the law that is now being challenged.

But, the lawsuit argues, "the blackout period created by that provision is no less unconstitutional than its six contemporary amendments already held to be such."

Jones has routinely contributed money to candidates, and has identified potential candidates that she wants to support in the 2022 Arkansas election cycle by donating funds to their campaigns, the lawsuit states. But, it says, the blackout period prevents her from donating funds to the 2022 candidates until May 2020 -- two years before the expected primary.

If she did donate, it says, she would be subjecting her chosen candidate to civil and criminal liability.

Violations of the provisions of the blackout period can be prosecuted as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500, or can result in a fine by the Ethics Commission, according to the suit.

It says Jones' political speech "is thus chilled because she is barred for at least the next year from supporting candidates of her choosing" for the 2022 election cycle.

Graham Sloan, the director of the Ethics Commission, couldn't be reached for comment late Monday afternoon.

The lawsuit argues that the only government interest sufficient to justify campaign finance restrictions, whether limits on contributions or expenditures, is the prevention of "actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption."

It says that, like the blackout period invalidated in the 1997 case, "the two-year restriction imposed by Section 7-6-203(e) fails to distinguish between 'large contributions with the potential to corrupt and small contributions with no such corruptive potential.'"

It also argues, "There is no evidence that political contributions made more than two years before an election are somehow more corrupting than contributions made less than two years before an election."

Jones alleges that the blackout period deprives her of her First and 14th Amendment rights, and can only be alleviated by an injunction barring enforcement of the law.

Metro on 04/09/2019

Print Headline: Suit challenges state's limit on campaign-donation time

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