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Originally published October 27, 2009 at 11:35 AM | Page modified October 27, 2009 at 2:16 PM

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Judge rejects R-71 opponents' bid to lift donor limit

Opponents of expanded benefits for gay couples will have to abide by the state's campaign finance laws while their lawsuit challenging those rules moves ahead.

TACOMA — Opponents of expanded benefits for gay couples will have to abide by Washington's campaign finance laws while their lawsuit challenging those rules moves ahead.

A federal judge has denied emergency requests from a group called Washington Family PAC, which wanted to suspend a ban on large campaign contributions and a requirement to identify donors.

The brand-new political action committee said that the laws were blocking its ability to collect last-minute political contributions in the week before Washington's general election.

The case revolves around Referendum 71, which would broaden domestic partnership rights for gay couples and unmarried seniors.

Family PAC says the state campaign finance laws violate free speech rights. But state attorneys are defending the campaign finance laws.

Judge Ronald Leighton's decision Tuesday was a slight setback for Washington Family PAC. A date for a full hearing on the case has not yet been set.

The PAC had challenged the state's public disclosure laws requiring those who give over $25 to disclose their names and addresses, and those who give more than $100 to disclose their names and employers. It also challenged the $5,000 contribution limit in the last three weeks of the election.

If Family PAC is ultimately successful, the state's cap on contributions to initiative and referendum campaigns could be eliminated and more donors would be allowed to remain anonymous.

Several constitutional law experts said Family PAC has a strong case — or at least enough to merit a full hearing.

Eugene Volokh, law professor with the University of California, Los Angeles, says contribution limits make sense when applied to candidates because of the fear that a large enough contribution could corrupt them.

But "you can't cap contributions to ballot measure campaigns because you can't bribe a ballot measure," Volokh said.

Volokh also believes Family PAC has a plausible argument that $25 is too low for the government to have a compelling interest in revealing who donated such an amount. Still, he points out, the Supreme Court has upheld disclosure thresholds as low as $10.

Stewart Jay, a University of Washington law professor, said that while campaign donors don't generally have a right to anonymity, in this case, there are enough plausible concerns about possible harassment for a judge to weigh the evidence.

Washington state's public disclosure laws, passed in 1972, were designed to ensure integrity in government, stating in part that "the public's right to know of the financing of political campaigns ... far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private."

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