California Common Cause defends the public interest over special interests in challenge to landmark pay-to-play law
Sacramento – California Common Cause, represented by Strumwasser & Woocher LLP, has filed an amicus brief defending the legality of bipartisan anti-corruption legislation, SB 1439 (Glazer, 2022), in the special interest lawsuit challenging the new landmark law. The law extends existing pay-to-play limits on contributions that have applied for decades to state officials and local appointed officials to local elected officials, helping end the continuous cycle of scandals caused by special interests’ massive campaign contributions to the local officials they have business before.
The amicus defends the law as a closely-drawn and justified solution that can help reverse both the impact and appearance of the rampant quid pro quo corruption that has infected local governments across California.
“SB 1439 is lawful, long-overdue legislation that holds our local leaders accountable to the people who elected them to office, not the special interests who fund their campaign accounts,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, Executive Director of California Common Cause. “This kind of law has been tried in other states and in a long list of California cities, and it has never been invalidated because of legal challenge. We trust SB 1439 will succeed in the courts.”
Under current law, candidates who sit in appointed local positions cannot take campaign contributions of over $250 from any entity that has business before them in their appointed position. SB 1439 mitigates pay-to-play scandals by closing a massive loophole, extending that same common-sense contribution limit to local elected officials who frequently vote on licenses, permits, and contracts. Under SB 1439, if a local elected official was in the position to vote on a matter pertaining to an entity that had contributed over $250 to them, that official has the choice to recuse or return the amount of the contribution over $250.
The brief outlines the myriad local pay-to-play scandals that illustrate the depth of California’s local government corruption problem, which spurred the legislature to unanimously pass SB 1439. Before this, a limited number of local governments across the state had enacted similar regulations in an attempt to curb corruption, but patchwork solutions were not enough to cure a statewide issue. SB 1439 holds all leaders throughout California equally accountable to the people, closing the loophole that missed the key players in these local scandals.
“We are honored to represent California Common Cause in showing how this critical law that protects the public against pay-to-play decision-making is plainly constitutional,” said Salvador Pérez of Strumwasser & Woocher, defending SB 1439. “Statewide solutions like SB 1439 are necessary to ensure that all localities are covered and to protect against democracy-eroding corruption scandals.”
Rather than imposing lower limits on all contributors or an outright contribution ban, the law applies lower contribution limits to a small subset of contributors with an elevated risk of actual and apparent corruption. By doing this, the law’s anti-corruption protections are a constitutional, closely-drawn solution to a pervasive issue.
“The people have every right to know where the loyalties of their elected representatives lie,” said Sean McMorris, California Common Cause’s Transparency, Ethics, and Accountability Program Manager. “SB 1439 is pro-democracy reform that restores trust in local government, ensuring that our democracy still belongs to the people — not the highest bidder making backroom deals with our local representatives.”
California Common Cause was the main supporter of SB 1439. The case, Family Business Ass’n v. FPPC, Case No. 34-2023-00335169-CU-MC-GDS, was filed in Sacramento Superior Court.