Major parts of a massive rewrite of Arizona's campaign finance laws enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2016 violate the state Constitution, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Parts of the law illegally strip power from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission created by voters in 1998, according to the ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David J. Palmer. The power to investigate campaign finance violations and act as filing officer for candidates was handed to the secretary of state.
The rewrite also created large exemptions in what counts as a contribution, including allowing political parties to spend unlimited sums backing a candidate. That provision was broadly used in this year's election by Republican and Democratic state parties. The Arizona Democratic Party, for instance, spent more than $2 million backing successful secretary of state candidate Katie Hobbs.
The law also allowed unlimited spending on legal fees, accounting and other types of support for candidates and political committees without being counted toward contribution limits.
Palmer ruled that all those provisions violate the Voter Protection Act, a voter-approved constitutional provision barring lawmakers from substantially changing voter-enacted laws.
The law was challenged by the Arizona Advocacy Network, some Democratic lawmakers and a labor union. The Clean Elections Commission joined the suit as a plaintiff. They argued that the law made major changes to campaign finance laws that were incorporated in the Clean Election Act "largely gutting key provisions that are essential enables it to the Act achieving its stated purpose as passed by the voters in 1998," Palmer wrote.
"The Commission and the Plaintiffs are correct," he concluded.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan and Ducey administration commission that reviews regulations were the defendants.
The rewrite was championed by outgoing state Elections Director Eric Spencer, who works for Reagan, and raised fears by some opponents that outside groups that don't disclose their donors could spend unlimited amounts of so-called "dark money" supporting or opposing candidates. That provision, which cedes oversight of some politically active nonprofit groups organized to the IRS, isn't affected by the ruling.
Opponents also decried the effort as a way to sidestep campaign finance enforcement.
Neither Spencer nor Reagan spokesman Matt Roberts immediately returned calls seeking comment late Wednesday afternoon. Reagan was represented by an outside attorney because Attorney General Mark Brnovich is charged with representing both her and the Commission and declared a conflict of interest,
James Barton, the attorney who argued that parts of the law were unconstitutional, called the ruling a major victory, although he expects an appeal.
"First and foremost, it restores Clean Elections' authority to enforce the entire elections code," Barton said. "And the Clean Elections Commission is the body that aggressively enforces campaign contribution limits. They are the body that really is going to stand up to dark money shenanigans."
"The other thing it does is it closes some loopholes that really threatened to make our campaign finance reporting a joke," he added. "And by closing those loopholes ... the citizen's right to know has been protected by this lawsuit."