Last year, a state court of appeals upheld a record $18 million fine levied against a pro-business group stemming from its opposition to a 2013 ballot initiative.
The business group, Grocery Manufacturers Association, recently appealed that decision to the Washington State Supreme Court, on the grounds that an $18 million penalty is an unconstitutionally excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment. Yesterday, Citizen Action Defense Fund filed an amicus curiae brief in support of GMA’s appeal.
CADF’s brief was filed on behalf of a bipartisan and bicameral group of 10 state legislators. We argued that penalties for campaign finance violations ought to be commensurate with the severity of the offense and the degree of harm to the electoral process that the violations caused. In this case, the alleged violation was a common, relatively mundane omission, yet GMA’s fine was far higher than the fines imposed for other groups violating the same statute. And moreover, GMA’s error was corrected before the election and no evidence was ever presented that the election results were in any way impacted.
Levying such an excessive fine that is not related to the severity of the offense or the harm to the electoral process is especially troubling in the context of constitutionally-protected political activity. Our representative democracy asks voters to make informed choices, which partly depends on the ability for candidates, causes and advocates to make their case to voters. Political participants shouldn’t have to fear that their good faith legal violations will result in outrageous fines, especially if the errors are immediately corrected and don’t change the election results.
The Supreme Court will decide later this spring whether to take up the case. CADF hopes they do.