Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Adopts "Less Rigorous" Scrutiny Standard for City of San Diego's Campaign Contributions Ordinance as Applied to the Signature-Gathering Phase of a Recall Campaign


In Citizens for Clean Government v. City of San Diego, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the City of San Diego ("City") did not provide evidence demonstrating that the City's ordinance limiting campaign contributions is closely drawn to match a sufficiently important government interest when applied to the signature-gathering phase of a recall campaign.

The City's municipal code bans contributions exceeding $250 to any committee supporting or opposing a candidate for City Council office. In 2003, Citizens for Clean Government ("Citizens") launched an effort to recall a member of the City Council. The recall campaign proceeded in two phases. Phase one required Citizens to gather a requisite number of signatures to file a recall petition. Phase two would occur after the signatures had been collected and verified and the City called a special election. Citizens ultimately failed to collect the required number of signatures for a recall campaign during the signature-gathering phase.

Citizens argued that the contribution limit was unconstitutional as applied to the signature-gathering phase of a recall campaign because it violated its right to freedom of speech and freedom of association under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Applying the "less rigorous" scrutiny standard established in Buckley v. Valeo (424 U.S. 1 (1976)), the court found that the City offered no record evidence or governmental findings of deliberation on the issue of campaign finance in recall campaigns to establish a sufficiently important interest in limiting contributions. The court remanded the case to the district court for further evidentiary development in accordance with the "less rigorous" scrutiny standard.

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