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Judge Tosses New Mexico’s Political Contribution Limits

Chief U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson ruled that the state’s limits on how much political parties can contribute to political candidates and local political parties was unconstitutional but upheld other state campaign finance limits.

A top federal judge in New Mexico has struck down as unconstitutional New Mexico's limits on how much state political parties can contribute to political candidates and local political parties.

The court enjoined the state from enforcing its $11,000 limit per election cycle on contributions from state political parties to gubernatorial candidates or candidate committees; its $5,500 limit per election cycle for all other candidates; and the state's $5,500 limit from state political parties to county parties.

Chief U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson, in an 87-page opinion released Thursday, upheld other state campaign finance limits in a mixed ruling on an 11-year-old lawsuit filed by the Republican Party of New Mexico, and other Republican plaintiffs.

For instance, Johnson dismissed the lawsuit's challenge to the $27,500 limit on contributions from individuals and entities to state political parties.

A spokeswoman for the Republican Party of New Mexico had no immediate comment on Thursday, adding, "Our legal team is studying the decision."

The spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office, which helped defend the state, couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of New Mexico's campaign finance laws as set out in the state's Campaign Reporting Act. The statute was enacted in 2009 in response to political corruption scandals in the state and after recommendations from an ethics reform task force convened by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, the ruling stated.

Because New Mexico had no contribution limits at the time, the task force proposed creating limits to "address quid pro quo corruption and the appearance of corruption associated with large campaign contributions," the ruling stated.

Several high-profile corruption scandals also influenced the task force and led to the adoption of the contribution limits, the ruling stated.

One of the scandals "ironically, involved Governor Bill Richardson," the ruling stated. "Richardson came under federal investigation in 2008 for allegedly giving state contracts to campaign donors. And these pay-to-play allegations ultimately caused Richardson to withdraw from consideration as President Obama's Commerce Secretary."

Richardson, who had served as Department of Energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, was never charged with a crime. He couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

"Political corruption is not just a relic of New Mexico's past," the ruling stated.

The judge also cited the convictions in the 1980s of former New Mexico State Investment officer Philip Troutman and Deputy State Treasurer Kenneth Johnson, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion for soliciting $2,000 in contributions to the Democratic Leadership Fund.

In the 1990s, then-state Rep. Ronald Olguin was convicted for soliciting or demanding a $15,000 bribe in exchange for including a $100,000 appropriation into the House's appropriation bill. Two state treasurers in New Mexico, Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil, were convicted of extortion and attempted extortion.

The judge wrote that political corruption has plagued New Mexico since statehood in 1912.

"The corruption of the Santa Fe Ring reportedly delayed New Mexico's admission to the Union. And not long after New Mexico became a state, Albert Fall, former New Mexico senator and then Secretary of the Interior, was jailed for accepting bribes in exchange for federal petroleum leases in the Teapot Dome scandal."

The Santa Fe Ring was a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators said to have amassed a fortune through political corruption and fraudulent land deals. The ring name was attached to nearly all state politicians in the New Mexico state capital.

Johnson focused on Republican Party challenges to five different state campaign contribution limits, finding three violated the First Amendment.

For a contribution limit to survive, the state must first show a "sufficiently important interest in that limit," Johnson wrote. Not just any corruption will suffice. "Campaign contribution limits must aim to prevent quid pro quo corruption or its appearance."

Lawyers representing the state, including the state Attorney General, presented evidence of the need to address quid pro quo corruption or its appearance through limits on contributions to political parties. "Two key examples: the convictions of Troutman and Johnson in the 1980s and "the recent 'pay to play' scandals of Governor Bill Richardson," the ruling stated.

"The Court finds the federal investigation into Governor Richardson's alleged pay-to-play schemes qualifies as the appearance of quid pro quo corruption because the State has demonstrated public awareness of the serious risk that Governor Richardson was awarding state contracts — the quid — in exchange for campaign contributions — the quo," Johnson wrote.

In the three limits the judge ruled as unconstitutional, Johnson found the limits on state party contributions to both gubernatorial candidates and non-gubernatorial candidates were lower compared to other states' limits and lower than limits upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As to the third limit, regarding state party contributions to county political parties, the judge found the state failed to put forth evidence to show that "there's a serious risk of donors circumventing valid contribution limits by donating money to a state party with the intention that the money be donated to a county party to give to a candidate in exchange for a 'quid pro quo" candidate or the appearance of one."

The limit on such contributions, he wrote, is "too attenuated from the root concern of quid pro quo corruption between individuals and candidates."

Conversely, in upholding the $27,500 limit per election cycle, Johnson found that New Mexico's limit on contributions from individuals and entities to state political parties is higher — often substantially higher — than the comparable limit imposed in 20 states. He also upheld the $27,500 limit on contributions from national political parties to state political parties for federal elections.

The judge found that evidence submitted in the case showed that the "NMGOP works closely with its Republican candidates, including evidence that the NMGOP provides its candidates with campaign assistance, strategic advice and often coordinates joint rallies and fundraising events with its candidates.

The case record also contains testimony about the importance of these type of fundraisers as ways for donors to meet candidates, the ruling stated.

"Specifically, former plaintiff Mark Veteto testified that his presence at State Republican fundraisers and the like allowed him access to former Governor Susana Martinez including the ability to email, text and call her."

The state's campaign reporting act was enacted just before the U.S. Supreme Court's seminal case, Citizens United v. FEC, "injected uncertainty into the world of campaign finance. Seizing on this uncertainty, the Republican Party of New Mexico and other plaintiffs filed suit in 2011, citing the First and 14th amendments and the Supremacy Clause," the judge wrote.

Current plaintiffs include the Republican Party of Bernalillo County, the Republican Party of Doña Ana County, New Mexico Turn Around, Harvey Yates, Jalapeño Corp. and the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico.

(c)2023 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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