Citizens Against Rent Control/Coalition for Fair Housing v. City of Berkeley, California - Oral Argument - October 14, 1981

Citizens Against Rent Control/Coalition for Fair Housing v. City of Berkeley, California

Media for Citizens Against Rent Control/Coalition for Fair Housing v. City of Berkeley, California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 14, 1981 in Citizens Against Rent Control/Coalition for Fair Housing v. City of Berkeley, California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 14, 1981 in Citizens Against Rent Control/Coalition for Fair Housing v. City of Berkeley, California

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear oral arguments first this morning in Citizens Against Rent Control/Coalition against the City of Berkeley.

Mr. Parrinello, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

James R. Parrinello:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court, the question presented by this case is whether limits on contributions to ballot measure campaign committees violate the First Amendment guarantees of speech and association.

Berkeley law limits to $250 the amount that a citizen may contribute to support or oppose a ballot measure.

This case arose out of a 1977 Berkeley election where voters were asked to accept or reject a proposal which would have enacted rent control in the city of Berkeley.

Groups of citizens associated together to oppose the rent control ballot measure.

Under Berkeley law, that citizen association was deemed to be a campaign committee.

The committee solicited and received contributions in excess of $250.00.

Shortly before the election, the city decided that those contributions violated the campaign contribution limit, and it ordered the committee to immediately forfeit the excess funds to the city treasury.

Believing that the forfeiture would impair its ability to communicate its message to the electorate prior to election day, the committee and its supporters filed suit and sought and obtained preliminary injunctive relief in the superior court, and used the additional funds to communicate its message to the voters prior to the election.

Thereafter, the committee moved for and obtained summary judgment in the superior court, which held that the campaign contribution limit violated the First Amendment.

The California Court of Appeals, by a vote of three judges to none, affirmed the summary judgment.

The California Supreme Court, by a vote of four judges to three, reversed, splitting on the constitutional issue.

The majority opinion of the California Supreme Court failed to reconcile itself with, or even to recognize, a prior decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which struck down virtually identical ballot measure contribution limits in the state of Florida.

That unanimous opinion of the Fifth Circuit, entitled Let's Help Florida v. McCrary, is now pending before this Court.

It is important to emphasize that this case involves ballot measure campaigns and ballot measure campaign committees.

It does not involve candidate campaigns for public office.

A limitation on the amount that citizens may contribute to a ballot measure campaign committee simultaneously affects the exercise of fundamental First Amendment rights in a number of ways.

The effects can best be viewed as two sides of the same coin.

On the one hand, ballot measure contribution limits impair the ability of citizens to associate together, to communicate their message to the voters as effectively as possible on an issue of public importance.

On the other hand, these limits under attack here deprive the public of vitally needed information and restrict their access to the marketplace of ideas at the time when they need it most, when they are being asked to decide issues for themselves.

The sole and only purpose of a ballot measure contribution is to purchase or enhance communication of the message to the voters.

The sole and only purpose of a limitation on ballot measure contributions to limit or to restrict that vital communication.

How do you distinguish your case from the First National Bank v. Bellotti?

James R. Parrinello:

Your Honor, I believe that in our case, it's very similar to First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti because there the court held that in the context of a ballot measure campaign, there is no legitimate governmental interest to support restrictions on First Amendment rights in the form of campaign spending.

If anything, the restrictions here are more onerous than the restrictions in Bellotti because they affect the rights of citizens or national persons as well as the rights of corporations.

Counsel, would your argument be the same if the limits were much higher; for instance, $5000 instead of $250?

James R. Parrinello:

Yes, it would, Your Honor.

Justice O'Connor, the principal reason that the argument would be the same is that in the context of a ballot measure campaign, there's no legitimate compelling governmental interest to support any restriction on the citizen's ability to communicate.

In the context of a ballot measure campaign, a proposal embodied in such a measure, in such a ballot measure, may target any number of citizens' rights.