Judge blocks law on timing of donations

State to appeal rejection of campaign finance rule

A state law that bars candidates for state office from accepting campaign contributions more than two years before an election was blocked Monday by a federal judge, prompting an immediate appeal from the state.

On April 8, Peggy Jones of Pulaski County sued over the law, Arkansas Code 7-6-203(e), which creates a blackout period for accepting campaign contributions. It was adopted by voters in 1996 as part of a package of amendments to campaign-finance laws, for the purpose of combating corruption.

Jones contends it infringes on her right of political expression by preventing her from donating money now to people she wants to support as candidates in the 2022 election cycle.

U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. heard arguments Wednesday on Jones' request for a preliminary injunction to keep the state from enforcing the law while he determines its constitutionality. He said then that her case would be stronger if she identified one of the candidates she wants to support.

In response, Jones' attorney, Chad Pekron of Little Rock, filed an updated affidavit from her on Thursday identifying one of the candidates she wants to support as Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Conway, who she said has told her he is running in 2022. She said she supported him during the 2018 election.

"Plaintiff wishes to contribute money immediately to Senator Johnson's 2022 campaign, but is currently prevented from making any such contribution until May 2020 by the Blackout Period," Pekron said in the supplemental filing.

Jones' affidavit also said, "I have identified a number of candidates that I wish to encourage to run for state office in Arkansas during the 2022 election cycle. I would like to make campaign contributions to these candidates in order to show my support for them."

She didn't identify any other candidates she wants to support.

In a three-paragraph order issued Monday, Moody said he finds that Jones has standing to pursue the case. He indicated in last week's hearing that to prove she has legal standing, a sufficient stake in the outcome of the case, she needed to provide a little more information indicating how she would be harmed by the enforcement of the law.

In Monday's order, Moody cited reasons he discussed during last week's hearing to determine that she has established a likelihood of prevailing. He also referred to a 2012 opinion by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis saying that "when a plaintiff has shown a likely violation of his or her First Amendment rights, the other requirements for obtaining a preliminary injunction are generally deemed to have been satisfied."

In the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Daniel McFadden argued that Jones didn't have standing because she hadn't yet done anything to be prosecuted under the law, which enables authorities to punish candidates who accept contributions outside the blackout period with a misdemeanor charge or an ethics violation. Moody said that while Jones wouldn't have to violate the law to fight it, she still had to show the threat of potential injury.

Jones contends that the blackout period is unconstitutional because it isn't "closely drawn to address an important governmental interest;" namely, corruption. She also contends the law is over-broad because it bars all campaign contributions, "including small contributions that do not present a potential for corruption."

McFadden asked Moody during the hearing to abstain from taking jurisdiction of the case to allow the state an opportunity to resolve the issue first. But he also said he wasn't aware of any current issue concerning the law pending before the state courts.

Moody's order said the state is "enjoined from enforcing" the law "during the pendency of this matter."

The attorney general's office filed an immediate notice that it planned to appeal the preliminary ruling to the 8th Circuit, which spokesman Amanda Priest pointed to Monday when asked for comment on the ruling.

The injunction, however, will remain in effect while the appeal is pending unless the state seeks a stay of the injunction during that time.

Pekron said Monday, "We're obviously very happy that Judge Moody recognized Ms. Jones' First Amendment rights. ... We look forward to a final decision on the merits of this case."

Metro on 06/18/2019