Multnomah County prevails: Circuit Court upholds County limits on campaign contributions

August 26, 2021

A Circuit Court judge has ruled that Multnomah County’s campaign contribution limits are constitutional and do not violate free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The County has now cleared an important hurdle to enforce campaign finance reforms that voters demanded nearly five years ago.

The County Elections Division will implement the contribution limits. More information on implementation will be posted in the coming weeks on the Elections Division Campaign Finance webpage. 

“I am pleased that the County can finally implement the campaign finance reforms that 89 percent of the voters supported,’’ said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “We are glad we can move forward.’’

In November 2016, voters amended the Multnomah County Charter to establish both campaign contribution and spending limits for the County’s elected offices — County Chair, Commissioners, Sheriff and Auditor — as well as employee payroll deduction, registration, and disclosure requirements, and mechanisms to administer and enforce those requirements.

The Board of Commissioners adopted an ordinance enacting such steps, but because similar measures have been repeatedly challenged as violating free speech rights, the Board proactively asked the County Attorney to seek legal certainty from the Courts. 

In 2018, the Circuit Court struck down the contribution limits, spending limits and disclosure requirements in the ballot measure. The County appealed, and the case went to the Oregon Supreme Court.

On April 23, 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the county's contribution limits under the Oregon Constitution. The case was then sent back to the Circuit Court to decide whether the contribution limits are also constitutional under the First Amendment.

In its decision, the Supreme Court explained that the trial court had not initially answered the First Amendment question. And because of the need for factual findings to determine that answer, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to consider that question in the first instance.

On Aug. 23, 2021, Circuit Court Judge Eric J. Bloch, concluded the limits were constitutional.

In a 16-page ruling, Bloch wrote the Court looked at three issues: (1) did the County show it had a sufficiently important government interest; (2) were there “danger signs” that the County's limits are too low; and (3) if “danger signs” are present, has the County sufficiently tailored its contribution limits to serve its government interest, meaning, has the County shown that its limits are not too low?

The Court first found that the County had provided sufficient evidence to justify imposing contribution limits.

The Court next found that the four “danger signs” that can indicate that contribution limits are too low, and therefore not “closely drawn” to meet the constitutional standard, were either not present or not significant enough to suggest that the contribution limits were too low.

The Court also examined the five factors that are used to assess whether limits are tailored enough to meet the government's interest. The Court found that the County's limits were sufficient under those factors as well.

As a result, the County’s disclosure requirements, along with the payroll deduction and registration requirements, also will remain in effect. 

The County’s expenditure limits will not go into effect after the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court’s ruling that those limits are unconstitutional. Validation Proceeding - Campaign Finance - MCCC Case No. 17CV18006