Free legal advice to a recall campaign isn’t a campaign contribution — neither is free legal advice in pursuit of that argument, and state campaign finance regulators can’t claim otherwise. That idea, the heart of a ruling issued Friday in Pierce County Superior Court, appears to end a four-year battle between backers of a 2011 county recall campaign and the state Public Disclosure Commission that has climbed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and back. It also adds a footnote to the stormy tenure of ex-Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam, the target of an unsuccessful recall effort in 2011. “The court correctly recognized that pro bono representation in civil rights cases cannot constitutionally be treated as political contribution,” said Bill Maurer, managing attorney in the Washington branch of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm. The institute is one of the parties in the case.
The dispute arose in 2011 after Puyallup resident Robin Farris mounted a campaign to recall Washam. To prepare her recall petition — a requirement of state law — Farris sought legal advice from the Tacoma law firm of Oldfield and Helsdon. The firm offered its services for free. That drew a rebuke from the PDC. The agency argued that the legal services qualified as campaign contributions under state law, and exceeded the allowable limits for such contributions.
In response, the Institute filed suit against the PDC in federal court, along with Oldfield and Helsdon. The firms argued that applying contribution limits to free legal services violated Farris’ constitutional rights.
The federal court sided with the attorneys, Farris and the recall backers. The involved parties subsequently filed a motion for the attorney fees they incurred in the litigation — more than $300,000.