Free legal advice to a recall campaign isn’t a campaign contribution — neither is free legal advice in pursuit of that argument, and state campaign finance regulators can’t claim otherwise.
That idea, the heart of a ruling issued Friday in Pierce County Superior Court, appears to end a four-year battle between backers of a 2011 county recall campaign and the state Public Disclosure Commission that has climbed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and back. It also adds a footnote to the stormy tenure of ex-Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam, the target of an unsuccessful recall effort in 2011.
“The court correctly recognized that pro bono representation in civil rights cases cannot constitutionally be treated as political contribution,” said Bill Maurer, managing attorney in the Washington branch of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm. The institute is one of the parties in the case.
The dispute arose in 2011 after Puyallup resident Robin Farris mounted a campaign to recall Washam. To prepare her recall petition — a requirement of state law — Farris sought legal advice from the Tacoma law firm of Oldfield and Helsdon. The firm offered its services for free.
That drew a rebuke from the PDC. The agency argued that the legal services qualified as campaign contributions under state law, and exceeded the allowable limits for such contributions.
In response, the Institute filed suit against the PDC in federal court, along with Oldfield and Helsdon. The firms argued that applying contribution limits to free legal services violated Farris’ constitutional rights.
The federal court sided with the attorneys, Farris and the recall backers. The involved parties subsequently filed a motion for the attorney fees they incurred in the litigation — more than $300,000.
In response, the PDC filed a counter-complaint, again arguing that the free legal services provided to Farris qualified as campaign contributions and hadn’t been reported.
Another lawsuit followed; Farris and the recall backers sued the PDC in Pierce County Superior Court. This time, the argument held that treating free legal services in a lawsuit as campaign contributions prevented Farris from suing to protect her civil rights, along with anyone else who might need similar counsel.
“The threat to (the Institute for Justice) and all nonprofit public interest law firms who provide pro bono legal services to political committees in Washington in federal civil rights cases is significant,” attorneys wrote.
The case dragged on for another 20 months. Friday, Judge Katherine Stolz sided with Farris and the law firms, signing a motion for summary judgment. The ruling prohibits the PDC from capping legal services to a political committee in a federal civil rights case.
It also prohibits the PDC from compelling political committees to report free legal services as campaign contributions. The crusher: the PDC must pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, according to the ruling. The amounts are yet to be determined.
Farris said she was happy with the court’s ruling.
“I am both excited and relieved that I can continue to work with IJ and Oldfield & Helsdon to vindicate my rights and the rights of all Washingtonians,” she said in a written statement. “The recall process was difficult enough without the unconstitutional laws that we fought and beat. But then to face massive fines just because I got free legal help to challenge those laws is simply too much. When I first got involved in politics four years ago, and just to recall a politician who I thought was abusing his office, I did not realize it would result in my being in court almost nonstop for years.”