The Multnomah County elections building in 2016.

The Multnomah County elections building in 2016.

Ann McGarry/OPB

A fight over limits on campaign donations that could have Oregon-wide implications is headed to a higher court. The only question is: Which one?

Earlier this month, a Multnomah County judge slapped down new campaign finance rules that limit campaign contributions to $500. County voters approved the new rules, which also cap how much can be spent independently to help a candidate’s chances, by a huge margin in 2016.

Those limits represented a big change in Oregon, which has among the most permissive campaign finance laws in the country. But Judge Eric Bloch ruled March 6 that the Multnomah County rules ran afoul of Oregon protections on free speech.

Now, with an appeal of that ruling assured, reformers who supported the changes want to fast-track a final decision. In a little-used move, they plan to ask the Oregon Court of Appeals to pass the matter directly to the Oregon Supreme Court, rather than hearing the case itself.

If the motion succeeds, the state’s highest court will soon mull whether or not Oregon law truly forbids limits on campaign donations.

“In a case like this, I think the chances of getting certification to the Oregon Supreme Court are good,” says Dan Meek, an attorney representing a group of citizens who’ve defended the limits in court.

Greg Chaimov, an attorney who represents groups that oppose the limits, says there’s no rush.

“I don’t see a fire,” Chaimov says.

The gambit is the latest step in a decades-old fight over the role of money in Oregon politics. States and localities around the country limit the cash wealthy interests can put toward helping their chosen candidates — or chasing off those candidates’ potential rivals. Oregon has no such rules.

Multnomah County’s role in the fight is partly circumstantial. Competitive races for seats on the county’s board of commissioners can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — often given in increments of $1,000, $2,500, or $5,000 donations — but they typically pale in comparison to contests for statewide office.

That’s why supporters of the campaign limits want to use the county rules as a springboard for statewide change. 

While pushing the rules during the 2016 campaign, supporters of the new limits acknowledged that they might be deemed unconstitutional — largely due to a sweeping 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling that swatted aside contribution limits. The goal, the campaign reformers said, was to get the state’s highest court to reconsider that decision.  

The new limits passed with 89 percent of the vote. Afterward, Multnomah County officials asked a county judge to decide whether the rules were legal.

The county and a group of nine citizens argued in favor of the limits. Three business lobbying groups — the Portland Business Alliance, Metropolitan Association of Realtors and Associated Oregon Industries — showed up to oppose the rules. They have members who are used to writing big checks, and all three organizations also make their own political contributions. (For instance, state records show that the political action committee operated by the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors recently donated $2,000 to Multnomah County commissioner candidate Sharon Maxwell.)

It took Judge Bloch seven months to decide. In early March, he ruled the limits on campaign donations were unconstitutional, writing that political contributions “are a form of highly-valued expression that falls squarely within, and are not historically excepted from, the protections of Article I, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution.”  

Both Multnomah County officials and Meek’s clients have said they’ll appeal that ruling, which would typically mean the case goes to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Meek hopes that’s not necessary.

“It’s the most important possible case,” he says. “It affects all candidates for all offices.” 

The maneuver Meek is planning isn’t tried often. Oregon law allows parties to ask appeals judges to pass a matter directly on to the Supreme Court. A majority of the appeals court’s 13 judges have to agree to do so, according to Oregon Judicial Department spokesman Phil Lemman. Then, a majority of the state Supreme Court justices have to agree to accept the case.   

That’s exceedingly rare. According to Lemman, the Court of Appeals has received 10 requests to pass a case to the Supreme Court in the last five years. It shot down all of them.

It’s not clear whether Multnomah County officials agree that the disputed campaign limits should head directly to the Supreme Court. A county spokeswoman said she’d look into it.   

But the attorney who represents the groups opposing the contribution limits is skeptical. Chaimov’s clients haven’t taken an official position on the request yet, and he’s not sure the case merits special treatment.

“The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the constitution has been consistent for the last 45 years,” says Chaimov, a former chief lawyer for the Oregon Legislature. “I initially don’t see any particular need for speed.”

Whatever path the Multnomah County case takes, Portlanders can prepare to hear lots more about campaign finance. Meek is currently representing a group hoping Portland voters will enact the same $500 limits for city races. If they can collect 34,156 valid signatures by July 6, the matter will come up for a vote in November.

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