Several donors to Anthony Pollina's political campaign have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the state is unfairly and illegally limiting how much they can give to his campaign.
But legal experts worry the legal challenge could leave Vermont with no campaign finance laws at all.
The campaign regulations that Vermont candidates are currently operating under allow major party candidates to collect $2,000 per donor, but limits independents to $1,000 per donor; the lawsuit filed Wednesday claims that is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
This issue surfaced when Pollina decided to drop the Progressive Party label and become an independent. The state then notified him that he'd have to return donations from 28 people who had exceeded the $1,000 limit for independents.
Three donors have refused to take the money back claiming the law is unfair.
"Let me give you an example, my own personal example," said John Franco, the lawyer for the Pollina donors. "I support Anthony Pollina. My wife supports Gaye Symington. Under the Attorney General's rule, I can only give $1,000. My wife can give $2,000. What's wrong with this picture?"
The different contribution limits are contained in the campaign finance law that dates back to 1981. The legislature eliminated the disparity in a later law, but in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of that law as unconstitutional.
Since then, state election officials and the major parties have been operating under the old 1981 law.
But some legal experts say there is no provision in state statutes for reverting to that prior legislation.
"Well I think there's a very high likelihood that a court could say there is no campaign finance law here in Vermont; that after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down our campaign finance law, there is no law that's in effect and therefore, we might be one of the only states in the nation without campaign finance," explained Cheryl Hanna, of the Vermont Law School.
If it's determined there is no campaign finance law in place, candidates would be free to collect unlimited amounts from individual donors.
Franco says it's not his intent to tear down Vermont's campaign finance laws.
"My clients understand that one possible outcome of this could be that the judge says that there's no statute. They understand that. That's not what we're asking him to declare. But that's certainly an outcome. We don't control how the court feels it has to rule," he said.
Bill Sorrell, D-Vt. Attorney General, stands by the decision to revert back to the 1981 law and to force Pollina to comply with the contribution limit for independents. But he too acknowledges this legal challenge could leave Vermont without any campaign finance laws.
It's still unclear whether the lawsuit is likely to have an impact on this election cycle. But these issues usually take months if not years to resolve. And no one has asked for an interlocutory ruling-- that is a quick decision-- from the judge. So it appears that 1981 law will remain the standard for this election.
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