Oregon Supreme Court issues historic decision in Multnomah County case: contribution limits allowed in Oregon

April 23, 2020

Court sends limits back to lower court to decide if allowed under First Amendment

The Oregon Supreme Court today upheld Multnomah County's campaign contribution limits under the Oregon Constitution, overruling a more than 20-year-old decision by the Court.

In March 2018, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric J. Bloch concluded that the county's contribution limits, independent expenditure limits, and disclosure rules all violate the Oregon Constitution.

The County, with advocate partners, appealed the Bloch decision arguing the original case law cited was wrongly decided and was no longer sound in light of subsequent cases.

In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Martha L. Walters, the Supreme Court upheld the county's contribution limits under the Oregon Constitution. The case will now be sent back to Circuit Court to decide whether the contribution limits are constitutional under the First Amendment.

"This is a historic day. The people of Multnomah County voted to reclaim their power and voice from special interests, and we are proud to have taken decisive action to uphold their will," said Chair Deborah Kafoury. "We are thrilled the Oregon Supreme Court recognized that these limits can be upheld in light of more recent and pertinent case law."

Campaign finance emerges as major initiative 

Amid national concern over the growing influence of money on elections, in November 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved amending the Multnomah County Charter on campaign finance rules for elected offices including the Chair, Commissioners, Sheriff, and Auditor. The amendment set campaign contribution and expenditure limits, disclosure requirements and an enforcement pathway.

The Board of Commissioners then moved to adopt the amendment into an ordinance. But because similar measures had been repeatedly challenged as violating free speech rights, the Board also asked the County Attorney to petition the Courts to provide legal certainty about the constitutionality of these provisions.

On May 3, 2017, the County filed a validation proceeding requesting the Circuit Court to uphold the constitutionality of the County campaign finance provisions under the Oregon and United States Constitutions.  

On March 6, 2018, the Circuit Court issued its ruling striking down the contribution limits, the expenditure and independent expenditure limits, and the disclosure requirements.

The County filed an appeal with the Oregon Court of Appeals, and the appeal was certified directly to the Oregon Supreme Court. Assistant County Attorney Katherine Thomas argued the County’s case before the Supreme Court.

The case is still far from over. In its decision, the Court explained that the trial court had not reached the question of whether the county's contribution limits violated the First Amendment and, because of the need for factual findings, remanded the case to the trial court to consider that question in the first instance.

The County will work with the parties and the trial court to expeditiously resolve whether the contribution limits are constitutional under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court left untouched the existing disclosure requirements enacted by the Board last year, but struck down the County’s independent expenditure limits.

As a result, the County’s disclosure requirements, along with the payroll deduction and registration requirements, remain in effect. The contribution limits, however, will now go to the trial court to resolve the outstanding question about the constitutionality of those limits under the First Amendment. The County’s independent expenditure limits will not go into effect at all given the Supreme Court’s ruling that those limits are unconstitutional under both the state and federal constitution.

Individuals with questions about how to comply with the law are advised to seek private counsel to discuss their individual needs. The County is evaluating this opinion and determining next steps.

But the County’s efforts encouraged the Board of Commissioners,

“Today’s ruling is historic,’’ said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “By clearing the way for contribution limits, it allows us to limit the influence of money in Oregon politics, strengthens our democratic processes, and returns power to the voters.”

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said, “Voters in Multnomah County spoke loud and clear: we want big money out of politics. The court’s decision allows us to limit contributions and ensure that elections are decided by all voters, not just the wealthy and special interests.” 

“We know that big money pollutes politics and I’m glad that Multnomah County could play a part in rectifying that,’’ said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. "We must create a structure that allows everyone to have a fair chance to lead and encourages diverse perspectives at the decision making table.”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran said, “I have long been concerned about the corrupting influence of money in politics undermining our system of democracy, and Oregon has been a national outlier with no limitations on campaign contributions. The Oregon Supreme Court’s decision will help clean up the pernicious effect of money in politics. Thanks to Multnomah County voters for their overwhelming support of campaign finance reforms, the tireless commitment of  advocates, and the incredible work of the County’s legal team in making this happen.”