The Oregon Supreme Court, reversing its longstanding ban on strict campaign finance limits, on Thursday ruled in favor of a voter-approved Multnomah County law putting a $500 limit on campaign donations.

That ruling also opens the door to the adoption of new campaign money limits throughout Oregon, which is one of the few states in the country that doesn’t restrict how much donors, including corporations and labor unions, can give to the candidates.

Besides Oregon, “no state court has ever ruled that a state free-speech clause protects campaign contributions from limits,” said Portland lawyer Dan Meek, who played a key role in this case, “and that’s what the Oregon Supreme Court is now saying.”

The ruling could give new life to a 2006 measure from Meek that was approved by Oregon voters. It limited donations in statewide races to $1,000 and in local races to $100, but it was never allowed to go into effect. 

Meek said he will now press Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno to immediately begin enforcing those limits.

Andrea Chiapella, a spokeswoman for Clarno, said staff are “continuing to review the opinion that came out today and evaluating any appropriate next steps.”

Sandra McDonough, president of Oregon Business & Industry, said her group now wants the Legislature to come up with a more moderate set of campaign limits instead of the ones contained in Meek’s 2006 measure.

Thursday’s ruling will initially lead to a “lot of confusion – and sadly, a lot more litigation,” she said.

Officials from Multnomah County and the City of Portland, where voters approved almost identical limits two years after the county did in 2016, said they will study the ruling to decide when and how to begin  enforcing it.

Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury noted that the county supported efforts to overturn the previous court decision. “This is a historic day,” she said in a statement.

“The people of Multnomah County voted to reclaim heir power and voice from special interests, and we are proud to have taken decisive action to uphold their will.”

Portland Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin said there is no immediate impact on the city’s regulations and she doubted it would affect candidates before the May 19 primary.

Technically, the Oregon Supreme Court sent the issue back to a lower court in Multnomah County to determine whether the $500 limit in county races violates federal free-speech protections.

Given rulings in other states, lawyers on both sides of the issue say there is a good chance the county limits will survive further scrutiny.

But if officials wait until the trial court acts, they would avoid upending the campaign-finance rules in the middle of the election season. Oregon has frequently been dubbed the “Wild, Wild West” of campaign money because of its lack of restrictions.

Legislative campaigns in the state are some of the most expensive in the nation on a per capita basis, and it’s not uncommon for deep-pocketed donors to write political checks that can exceed six or even seven figures.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight gave $2.5 million to GOP gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler in 2018 while his opponent, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, received $750,000 from a gun safety group bankrolled by billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Oregon voters have periodically tried to crack down on big money.

In 1994, they passed a measure putting tight limits on legislative and statewide races. But in 1997, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that those limits ran afoul of the state’s constitutional protections for free expression.

However, since then the court has entirely turned over its memberships. And several justices made it clear during oral arguments last November that they were interested in taking a new approach.

Thursday’s decision, written by Chief Justice Martha Walters, flatly called several elements of its 1997 decision “erroneous” and said it conflicted with the way it approached other issues dealing with free expression.

“Ultimately, we do not believe that we can have one [free-speech] approach to laws restricting campaign contributions and another for all other laws.”

At the same time, the court struck down portions of the Multnomah County measure that limited spending by campaigns independent of the candidates.

That came as no surprise since the U.S. Supreme Court has held in several key decisions – including Citizens United – that authorities can’t prohibit that kind of spending.

This means that even if Oregon does adopt tight contribution limits, individuals and groups could still divert big money to independent advertising campaigns for or against certain candidates. Oregon voters will have their own chance to weigh in on the issue this November.

The Legislature placed  a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would essentially allow the state to adopt any campaign finance limits allowed by the federal constitution. Meek said that constitutional amendment is largely moot, although he said he still supports a ‘yes’ vote. 

The big battle could come in the 2021 Legislature when lawmakers have been expecting to put together their own package of limits on campaign donations. 

State Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who led an unsuccessful attempt in 2019 to come up with a set of limits, said he hopes Thursday’s court decision will help spur action by the Legislature.

“In a perfect world,” he said, “what I would love to see is us come into the session” and reach a consensus “on a comprehensive plan.”

But Rayfield said the Legislature will have to focus on grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and may not have time to get to this issue.