AUGUSTA, Maine — Four supporters of independent Eliot Cutler’s bid for governor filed a suit Monday in U.S. District Court over what they argue are inequities in Maine campaign finance laws.
The injunction asks that individual contribution limits for donations to Cutler’s campaign be the same as they are for major-party candidates — and in time for the 2014 election.
At issue is a law that allows major-party candidates to collect the maximum individual contribution of $1,500 for both the primary and general elections, which means those candidates can collect a total of $3,000 from each individual whether they have a primary opponent or not.
Independent candidates, since they do not participate in a primary election, are held to a $1,500 individual contribution limit for their entire campaigns.
The Cutler campaign, which is not directly involved in the suit, has long argued that the contribution limits — which have been in place since at least 2000, when the state’s clean election system was launched — put independents at a disadvantage.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court by attorney Melissa Hewey of the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon on behalf of Amy Woodhouse of Freeport, Richard Tobey Scott of Freeport, William Hastings of Falmouth and J. Thomas Franklin of Portland. It alleges that the state’s contribution limits violate the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and names as defendants the Maine Ethics Commission, its chairman, Walter McKee, and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
“Regardless of whether the candidate is actually opposed in any primary election, the commission takes the position that each supporter of a major party candidate can contribute up to $3,000 to the major party candidate’s campaign either before or after a non-existent primary election, and that the major party candidate can spend the entire amount on the general election even if the candidate is unopposed at a primary election,” reads the suit.
The ethics commission affirmed that position in an October 2013 letter to Cutler, according to the suit.
The suit seeks a ruling that Maine’s campaign finance laws are unconstitutional because they violate the rights to free speech, equal protection and political expression and association.
A similar law to Maine’s was upheld last year in Colorado, but the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, reversed it and found in favor of the plaintiffs in January of this year. Hewey said under normal circumstances, defendants would have up to 20 days to reply but that she has asked a federal judge to expedite the process.
“[Maine campaign finance laws] are a violation of my clients’ First Amendment rights to participate in the election process,” said Hewey.
Paul Lavin, assistant director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said his office received the suit on Monday afternoon and would consult with Attorney General Janet Mills about it in the coming days. He said permanently changing the law would require an act of the Legislature.
Cutler campaign spokeswoman Crystal Canney said the candidate is “pleased” that the suit has been filed.
“Maine people understand fairness and it has long been unfair that the political parties in maine have created one set of rules for their candidates and another for independents,” said Canney in a written statement. “A federal court of appeals in Colorado recently ruled that a similar law there is unconstitutional, so this is an appropriate time for people who support independent candidates to challenge Maine’s law.”