This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
When retired Navy officer Robin Farris launched a recall campaign against Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam last October, little did the political neophyte realize that state law essentially handcuffs someone like her.
She’s not allowed to accept donations of more than $800 per person. And there’s no such thing as pro bono legal work; any legal help she might get is considered an in-kind contribution and subject to the $800 limit.
Farris found that out after a Tacoma law firm, Oldfield & Helsdon, volunteered many hours to help her. The state Public Disclosure Commission punished Farris with a $250 fine but did not force her to repay the law firm more than $21,000 worth of donated time.
The restriction on donated legal help creates a kind of Catch-22 that makes it virtually impossible for a person of modest means who is not a trained attorney to mount a successful recall campaign. That’s because state law requires that a Superior Court judge rule on whether the charges stipulated in the recall are sufficient for the effort to move forward. If the recall target appeals – as happened in Washam’s case – the case then goes to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled that Farris’ recall effort could proceed.
How many average citizens are in a position to hire a legal team to handle the significant litigation that’s virtually built into the recall process?
Not many – and that’s the impetus behind a federal lawsuit Farris and the law firm filed Tuesday against the PDC. They’re seeking to do away with the donation limit and have recall campaigns treated the same way as those for initiatives. They are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal advocacy group.
The lawsuit’s arguments are based on established U.S. Supreme Court decisions that consider campaign contributions to be equivalent to speech and protected by the First Amendment. The court has supported contribution limits in political races, recognizing the possibility of a “quid pro quo” relationship between donor and candidate. But a recall case such as Farris’ involves no such threat of corruption.
In Farris’ case, the $800 limit also impedes her ability to quickly gather more than 65,000 petition signatures in Pierce County. If she were able to raise more money, she’d be able to hire some signature gatherers and place her petition in The News Tribune. (She has already done that once.)
The state constitution gives citizens the right to recall elected officials. But the process is stymied by the campaign contribution restrictions to the point that few recall efforts go forward. Even the assistant attorney general representing the PDC, Bruce Marvin, acknowledges that the legal standards for a recall petition might be “beyond the ken” of average citizens, who likely would need legal assistance.
That’s wrong. Recalls should not be just for the wealthy. Average citizens like Farris should not be priced out of exercising their rights.
Unless her lawsuit receives expedited attention, including an injunction against the PDC from enforcing contribution limits, this lawsuit won’t help her in her campaign to recall Washam. But it could clear the legal air for future recall efforts and ensure that the right of recall is one that any citizen can pursue.