Limitations on Campaign Contributions Depend on who gets it, not who Gives it.

Charmaine Tavares Campaign v. Wong (ICA June 25, 2009)

Background. Charmaine Tavares ran for mayor of Maui County, a non-statewide office with a four-year term. Tavares' campaign committee was called the Charmaine Tavares Campaign (CTC) and was organized to spend money on behalf of and accept contributions for her mayoral campaign. The CTC told the public it could accept contributions up to $4,000. Quong Enterprises, a real-estate development corporation from California, gave $2,000 to the CTC. Talboy Construction also gave $2,000. Cheeseburger in Paradise and its partner, Cheeseburger in Paradise-Waikiki, each gave $1,000. Barbara Wong, the Executive Director of the Campaign Spending Commission, informed the contributors that they violated the campaign spending laws and were subject to penalties and fines. The CTC filed a complaint seeking injunctive and declarative relief against Wong and the Campaign Spending Commission. Quong intervened. The circuit court granted summary judgment for the CTC and Quong. Wong appealed.

Plainly and Unambiguously Speaking . . . "No person or any other entity shall make contributions to . . . [a] candidate seeking nomination or election to a four-year non-statewide office or to the candidate's committee" exceeding $4,000. HRS § 11-204(a)(1)(C). On the other hand, "[n]o person or any other entity shall make contributions to a noncandidate committee" exceeding $1,000. HRS § 11-204(b). A "candidate's committee" is a committee that spends money on behalf of and accepts contributions for a candidate "with the candidate's authorization." A candidate can only have one "candidate's committee." HRS § 11-191. A "noncandidate committee," however, spends money and accepts contributions in order "to influence . . . the election of any candidate to political office, or for or against any issue on the ballot, but does not include a candidate's committee." HRS § 11-191.

According to the ICA, the statute was clear: contributions to a "candidate's committee" are limited to $4,000, HRS § 11-204(a)(1)(C), while contributions to a "noncandidate committee" are limited to $1,000. HRS § 11-204(b). It was undisputed that the CTC was Tavares' committee and not a "noncandidate committee." Thus, Quong and the others could lawfully give the CTC up to $4,000.

"Person or any Other Entity." The ICA rejected Wong's argument that the phrase "any other entity" was ambiguous. "Person" is "an individual, partnership, committee, association, corporation, or labor union and its auxiliary committees." HRS § 11-191. The words "any other entity" was not defined. The ICA concluded that the phrase "any other entity" simply meant "any entity that is not already listed in the broad definition of 'person.'"

A Matter of Receiving, not Giving. But this begs the question: what's out there than can't fall under this "broad definition of 'person'"? More specifically, what was Quong and the others? A "person" or some "other entity"? It would seem that Quong was a "person" as it was a "corporation." The ICA never answered this question. And it didn't have to. According to the ICA, the phrase "any other entity" did not cause confusion in interpreting the plain meaning of HRS § 11-204. The limitations of a contribution--be it a "person" or anyone else--hinge on whether it was given to a candidate's committee or a noncandidate committee.

Et "to," Brute? The ICA also rejected Wong's argument that the word "to" in HRS § 11-204(b) is ambiguous in light of the campaign spending reporting requirements. According to Wong, a contribution could either be given directly to the noncandidate committee or to some intermediate entity that tracks and accounts for the contributions. Wong urged the ICA to interpret HRS § 11-204(b) to require a contribution to be given directly to a noncandidate committee and nothing in between. The ICA held that while there are indeed separate reporting requisites in the campaign spending law (HRS §§ 11-212 and 11-213), it does "not cast doubt on the contribution limit set forth in HRS § 11-204(b)." The ICA noted that HRS § 11-204(b) limits any and all contributions by a person or other entity to $1,000. It does not require "that every contribution . . . be made in the first instance to a noncandidate committee."

But what Would Ambiguity get you Anyways? Wong made two arguments for an ambiguous statute. Why? "In construing an ambiguous statute, the meaning of the ambiguous words may be sought by examining the context, with which the ambiguous words, phrases, and sentences may be compared, in order to ascertain their true meaning. Moreover, the courts may resort to extrinsic aids in determining legislative intent. One avenue is the use of legislative history as an interpretive tool." Kapuwai v. City and County of Honolulu, 119 Hawai'i 304, 309, 196 P.3d 306, 311 (App. 2008). It seems that if the statute is ambiguous, the courts are free to examine the legislative history and other extrinsic aids to determine its true meaning. But would Wong's arguments have been able to get to the crux of the case? Probably not. Wong argued that the phrase "any other entity" and the word "to" were ambiguous. Even if the ICA agreed with her, the rule of construction allows courts to examine the context of the "ambiguous words and phrases." Id.

Another reason for urging ambiguity is deference. Courts recognize that "deference to agency expertise is a guiding precept where the interpretation and application of broad or ambiguous statutory language by an administrative tribunal are subject to review." Holi v. AIG Haw. Ins. Co., Inc., 113 Hawai'i 196, 206, 150 P.3d 845, 855 (App. 2007). The ICA found no ambiguity here and thus was not obligated to defer to the Campaign Spending Commission's interpretation of HRS § 11-204.

No Legislative Support Anyways. The question of what ambiguity gets the Commission is purely academic in this case. The ICA disagreed with Wong's assertion that the plain and unambiguous interpretation of HRS § 11-204(a)(1)(C) defeated the purpose of disclosure and reporting requirements. According to the ICA, HRS § 11-204 limits campaign contributions. It does not speak to reporting the contributions. The ICA also noted that the legislative history behind HRS § 11-204(b) "contradicts or is inconsistent with" the plain and unambiguous language of the statute itself. Thus, it did not support Wong's claim that contributions to noncandidate committees "was intended to override the limit in HRS § 11-204(a)(1)(C) for contributions to candidates and candidate committees."

For Another Perspective. Blogger, Ian Lind, has been following this case. Here's his take.


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