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Judge strikes down two Austin campaign finance rules

Thursday, July 21, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

A federal district court ruled late Wednesday that two rules governing how candidates for Austin office handle campaign funds violate the First Amendment. The ruling came after Council member Don Zimmerman filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s campaign finance rules last year.

In a release from his lawyer, Zimmerman said, “We are examining our further options regarding the affirmation of our First Amendment rights to political speech.”

The first rule – the city’s “blackout” period, limits candidates to a six-month fundraising window prior to an election. According to Judge Lee Yeakel’s ruling, lawyers for the city failed to prove that allowing candidates to fundraise seven or eight months in advance would disproportionately sway the votes of current council members running for re-election.

The judgment reads: “…the Austin City Council is in session and voting on matters year-round, so the danger that contributions would influence votes is no less a concern in the six-month window in which fundraising is allowed than during any other time of the election cycle.”

The judge also struck down another city rule, which requires that candidates dissolve funds from a campaign no later than 90 days after the election. He ruled the city failed to prove that remaining funds create a “war chest” of interests, fueling corruption.

The blackout period for the local election in November has already expired, so it does not look like Wednesday’s ruling will affect any elements of the next election.

“We will review the decision carefully, but today’s ruling does not appear to require any changes in city election administration between now and election day,” wrote a City of Austin spokesperson in an email.

But the federal judge failed to strike down two rules setting clear monetary limits on campaign funds. The first caps per-person contributions at $350. The second rule (also upheld) limits contributions from non-Austin voters to a total of $36,000.

The city’s Ethics Review Commission issued a formal reprimand against Zimmerman last year, after he failed to file certain post-election finance reports.

Read the judge’s ruling here below.

Download (PDF, 159KB)

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanueza-Lyon/ KUT

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