Federal Court Upholds Connecticut Pay-to-Play Ban

Mary Boyle, (202) 736-5770

Jonathan Rosen, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452-5637

Law Addressed Connecticut Scandal Similar to Blagojevich’s in Illinois

Today, defenders of Connecticut’s ban on political contributions from lobbyists and contractors celebrated a litigation victory as a federal court upheld the law following a constitutional challenge. The court held that the law, one of the strictest laws in the nation banning “pay to play” contributions, was constitutional, a decision that could have wide impact on states considering similar policies in light of the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The opinion is available online here.

“It is very gratifying that the Court recognized the substantial state interest in banning contributions by lobbyists and contractors because they inevitably create the appearance of improperly influencing decisions by state officials,” said Ira M. Feinberg, a partner in the New York office of Hogan & Hartson, the international law firm based in Washington, who served as co-counsel with the Brennan Center and argued the case for the intervening defendants.

“Today’s decision is a clear victory for good government. The current shameful situation in Illinois — and the earlier corruption scandals in Connecticut that prompted enactment of this law — show that too often politicians are willing to trade away their offices for private gain. This law protects taxpayers by assuring that those seeking to do business with the state are not paving their way with campaign contributions. Ending pay-to-play government must be a primary goal of both state and federal officials,” said Laura MacCleery, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, which assisted the law firm, Hogan & Hartson in serving as counsel for Intervenor-Defendants in the case.

“We are pleased that the court has upheld the constitutionality of the state contractor and lobbyist contribution bans that Common Cause helped pass into law in 2005. The court has recognized that Connecticut’s history of pay-to-play politics created the appearance and the reality of corruption in Connecticut. Upholding this essential reform helps us put our reputation as ‘Corrupticut” behind us,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, Vice President for State Operations of Common Cause.

Enacted in late 2005, the law was a response to the indictment and subsequent guilty plea of then Governor John Rowland. As part of his plea agreement, Rowland “acknowledged that he conspired with other public officials and state contractors to award and/or facilitate the award of state contracts in return for free or greatly reduced vacation stays in Florida and Vermont, free construction work on his Connecticut lake cottage, and free private jet flights to Las Vegas and Philadelphia – the value of which totaled in excess of $100,000.”

In a holding that could apply as much to Springfield, Illinois as Hartford, Connecticut, Judge Underhill upheld the law writing, “In light of Connecticut’s recent history of corruption scandals involving high-ranking state politicians, I conclude that the legislature had a constitutional, sufficiently important interest in combating actual and perceived corruption by eliminating contributions from individuals with the means and motive to exercise undue influence over elected officials.”

Under the law, lobbyists, state contractors and prospective state contractors are prohibited from making contributions to certain candidate committees for legislative and statewide offices, candidate-affiliated political action committees (PACS) and party committees.

The state contractor and lobbyist contribution bans were part of a broader package of campaign finance reforms that Common Cause, a Intervenor-Defendants in the case, and other reform groups helped to pass in 2005. The law helps to break the sometimes corrupting nexus between wealthy interests and elected officials.

The Association of Connecticut Lobbyists, along with the Green Party argued that the contribution and solicitation restrictions on principals of state contractors, prospective principals of state contractors, lobbyists and their families are unconstitutional.

The decision today comes in response to a motion for summary judgment from the Brennan Center and the State of Connecticut on the plaintiff’s claims that the bans on lobbyist and contractor contributions were a violation of the First Amendment. Judge Underhill rejected those claims, writing “Because the law does not materially undermine the plaintiffs’ core First Amendment rights to engage in meaningful expressions of political belief and support or to freely associate with candidates and political parties, the bans are narrowly tailored to pass constitutional muster.”

The case is Green Party of Connecticut v. Jeffrey Garfield, et al.

In defending the law, the Brennan Center is joined by co-lead counsel from the New York office of Hogan & Hartson L.L.P., on behalf of Connecticut Common Cause and Connecticut Citizen Action. Attorneys from the Campaign Legal Center, Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry LLP, WilmerHale and Democracy 21 in Washington, DC also are part of the litigation team representing the Intervenor-Defendants .

Hogan & Hartson partner Ira M. Feinberg presented oral argument on behalf of Defendants and Intervenor-Defendants at a hearing on March 4, 2008. (Read the transcript here.)

More on the case may be found here.

The Brennan Center has successfully defended state public financing laws in Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina and is currently defending the constitutional claims brought against the Connecticut public funding system. Click here for more information.