The future of campaign contribution limits in Multnomah County—and possibly the entire state—hinges on a case currently before the Oregon Supreme Court. Oral arguments for the case, held last Thursday, made clear that the court’s decision will come down to how it chooses to interpret the state’s free speech protections.

In 2016, Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure that capped campaign contributions for county races at $500 per donor for each race. But business interest groups challenged the measure in court, and in 2018 a county judge ruled it unconstitutional, on the basis that limiting campaign contributions conflicted with Oregon’s freedom of speech and expression laws.

The expected next step was for the case to go before the Oregon Appeals Court. But in January of this year, the Oregon Supreme Court made the rare decision to bypass the appeals court and hear the case next, as it did last week.

The court’s ruling in this case, expected to be announced in early 2020, could have repercussions outside of Multnomah County races: The city of Portland passed a very similar measure backed by the same group in 2018, and yet another campaign finance measure is expected to appear on the statewide ballot in 2020. Lawmakers at the Oregon State Legislature are considering legislation that would cap campaign contribution as well.

Jason Kafoury, one of the advocates for contribution limits, told the Mercury that if the court rules in their favor, those limits would likely apply for the city's and county's 2020 races.

"If the Supreme Court were to come back and conclude the limits are constitutional," Kafoury wrote in an email, "then [Portland Mayor] Ted Wheeler and other candidates that take donations in violation of the measure would face huge fines two to 20 times the amount per illegal donation."

Wheeler recently announced the he would be limiting his own campaign contributions—but the limits are $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from organizations, much higher than the $500 limit imposed by the Portland ballot measure.

Oregon’s campaign finance laws are currently among the most lax in the country, with no limits on donation amounts for individuals or political action committees, or PACs. Speaking before the Oregon Supreme Court, attorneys representing Multnomah County and Honest Elections, the organization responsible for the ballot measures, argued that imposing limits on campaign donations would not inhibit Oregon’s constitutional free speech laws for three reasons:

1. Candidates don’t need funding in order to speak freely and campaign.
2. Candidates can still raise unlimited amounts of money; there’s just a cap on how much money each donor can contribute.
3. Contribution limits don’t place any new parameters on how candidates use the money they receive.

Katherine Thomas, an attorney for Multnomah County, also pointed out that “many other jurisdictions around the country do have similar [contribution] limits of $500.”

“There’s certainly no evidence here that a $500 limit would prevent a candidate’s ability to speak,” Thomas added.

Dan Meek, an attorney and member of Honest Elections, also argued in favor of the contribution limits. He referenced Buckley v. Valeo, a 1976 US Supreme Court case, to make the case that campaign contribution limits are already acceptable under federal law.

“We must uphold the dollar amount of a contribution limit, unless it is ‘so radical in effect as to render political association ineffective, drive the sound of the candidate’s voice below the level of notice, and render contributions pointless,’” Meek said, quoting the ruling from Buckley. “That’s not what’s happening with the measure at issue.”

Attorney Gregory Chaimov on the behalf of business interest groups— the Portland Business Alliance, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, and Associated Oregon Industries—that oppose the contribution caps. Chaimov argued that two previous Oregon Supreme Court rulings, known as “Vannatta 1” and “Vannatta 2,” had already “rejected” the premise that the rules around campaign donations ought to change based on dollar amount.

“It’s the receipt by the candidate that constitutes expression,” regardless of amount, Chaimov said.

Chaimov also referenced Wheeler, who recently rejected campaign donations from Portland-business-mogul-turned-impeachment-personality Gordon Sondland after it because clear Sondland had played a role in Donald Trump’s Ukrainian quid pro quo scandal. Chaimov said it was a clear example of how campaign donations function as a type of speech.

“He rejected them because the expression of the rejection of those contributions expressed his rejection of support from that particular person,” Chaimov said.

“It doesn’t matter how much you limit the expression—whether you say none, a little, or just a little bit,” Chaimov added. “None of that is permissible.”

The court justices grilled both sides during oral arguments, making it unclear whether they stood on the issue. The court is expected to announce its ruling in early 2020. If it rules in favor of the contribution limits, that should clear up any legal hurdles for both the 2018 Portland measure, and the upcoming 2020 state ballot measure.