1996 initiative unconstitutional

The Associated Press
Friday March 02, 2001

SACRAMENTO — A federal judge Thursday threw out sections of a 1996 campaign finance initiative that regulated paid “slate mailers” – campaign pieces that urge voters to support a list of candidates or issues. 

Those regulations, designed to show voters that candidates and ballot measure campaigns paid to be included on the mailers, are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment right to political speech, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled. 

Karlton had been considering the constitutionality of Proposition 208 for several years. 

The initiative, which limited campaign donations, was only in effect for the non-election year of 1997 and a few days in 1998 before Karlton halted its enforcement. 

Voters last November approved Proposition 34, which imposed different campaign contribution limits and invalidated almost all of Proposition 208. 

One of the few things left in Proposition 208 were regulations aimed at “slate mailers,” which are brochures or cards that voters commonly receive in the mail right before elections. 

The mailers are produced by commercial firms that solicit money from campaigns to be included in their list of “recommended” candidates and issues. 

Proposition 208 required slate mailers to put three dollar signs next to the candidates and ballot measures that paid to be included.  

It also required slate mailer producers to tell voters the names of the two biggest contributors who donated more than $50,000 to pay for the mailer. 

Karlton said those requirements were unconstitutional even though the companies producing the mailers are paid. 

The regulations, he wrote, “are content-based regulations of political speech and not a form of commercial speech.” 

Tony Miller, a former chief state elections officer and a leading sponsor of Proposition 208, said he had not seen the ruling but was “disappointed, but not really surprised.” 

Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, a campaign reform group that backed Proposition 208, said he hoped the ruling would be appealed. 

The Fair Political Practice Commission, the state’s political watchdog agency, will decide whether to appeal Karlton’s decision at its next meeting on March 9. 

Karlton also approved an agreement requiring the state to pay $3 million in fees to attorneys representing some of the plaintiffs that challenged 208, including the California Democratic and Republican parties.