Legal Update: San Diego's Campaign Contribution Limbo
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. On this legal update, we trace San Diego's current political contribution free-for-all back to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, we'll hear about a lawsuit trying to force the state to change the way it funds education, and on a lighter note, a comedian is let off the legal hook over some mother-in-law jokes. Joining me for this update is These Days legal analyst Dan Eaton. Good morning, Dan.
DAN EATON (KPBS Legal Analyst): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: So since last Tuesday, political parties in the City of San Diego have been allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates for city council. How did that happen?
EATON: Well, what happened, Maureen, was that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency motion that was filed by one of the plaintiffs. I believe it was San Diego Republican Party that asked that the Judge Gonzalez’s stay on her order which invalidated the outright ban that the City has on contribution—direct contributions—to city candidates by political parties. The judge, remember, had issued that stay, or suspension of her order, to give the City time to enact some sort of alternative limit on contributions by political parties and what the plaintiff said was, look, you need to lift this altogether and a two-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit agreed and granted it and lifted the stay, which had the effect, as you’ve said in the opening, of allowing political parties, at least for now, to give unlimited contributions to candidates for city office, including city council.
CAVANAUGH: Now, but just last month, the city council did pass a thousand dollar cap on contributions by political parties in response to Judge Gonzalez’s ruling earlier this year. So what happened to that?
EATON: Well, that’s right. On April 27th, the city council actually unanimously passed a thousand dollar limitation on like political party contributions. But what happened? That amendment doesn’t go into effect because of the way city laws go into effect until late next month. Obviously, the primary is June 8th, so that’s well after that. That’s why this has happened. And another thing to say about that thousand dollar limit, it’s not clear that it will survive constitutional scrutiny. Even the City Attorney, who said that – who noted that the City Ethics Commission had recommended the thousand dollar limit has said it’s not clear that under the Citizens United case that you’ve been sort of alluding to, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance, whether it would survive. Even though the City Ethics Commission, in making its recommendation, pointed to other cities who have similar limitations on political party donations.
CAVANAUGH: So tell us again, Dan, how do we trace the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United to what’s happening here in San Diego with our campaign contribution law.
EATON: Well, the Citizens United case, remember, did not specifically address the issue of political parties. The Citizens United case said that you cannot make a difference, you cannot distinguish between people based on the identity of the speaker, specifically whether they are a corporation or an individual. This particular issue, though, was whether political parties, given their nature, could be completely excluded from direct contribution to candidates. And Judge Gonzalez, in her order earlier this year, said, no, they could not be completely excluded as the City had done since – for a number of decades, as a matter of fact.
CAVANAUGH: And she used the ruling, the Supreme Court ruling, as the basis for her decision.
EATON: In part, although the political parties part of her decision did not have as much effect as other aspects of her ruling. She didn’t specifically rely on Citizens United in connection with a political party ban but, nonetheless, all of these bans that distinguish among different kinds of entities definitely come into play in light of the Citizens United ruling, which one Supreme Court observer called a minor revolution in campaign finance law.
CAVANAUGH: I think the lift of the stay just a couple of weeks before the primary election has surprised a lot of people.
CAVANAUGH: Could the city council have that thousand dollar cap go into effect right away?
EATON: Well, Maureen, regular listeners to this segment, of course, will remember that the city curfew law, for example, that was invalidated by the state Court of Appeal here in San Diego, they said it was unconstitutional because it was too broad, and what the city council did was they passed an emergency measure under City Charter Section 295, which requires that it have at least six votes and that they find that really the public health or welfare demands an – that it go into effect immediately. There’s not a lot of time but I suppose one thing that the city could do, the city council could do, is pass this thousand dollar cap before the June 8th election to make it go into effect earlier. But it’s not entirely clear that the plaintiffs in that lawsuit brought before Judge Gonzalez would immediately go in and try to invalidate that as unconstitutional under Citizens United. The City Attorney was very clear in a memo that it issued that, quote, it is unknown whether the thousand dollar contribution limit recommended by the Ethics Commission would withstand a constitutional challenge, closed quote, in light of the Citizens United case. So if they do it, that’s fine but the challenges will not end.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, okay. Well, let’s move on now to a suit that challenges California’s school funding system. On – In May, a coalition of California school districts, education organizations, parents and students all got together, sued the state and Governor Schwarzenegger, challenging the constitutionality of the way schools are funded in this state. Why would this be a state constitutional issue?
EATON: Well, because the state constitution, unlike the federal constitution, guarantees a fundamental right to education to all school children and it also has various other provisions such as a provision requiring that school funding be set apart from other funding. There is clearly a priority for educational funding in our state constitution, which is a very – is a much more detailed document than the federal document. So what exactly do the plaintiffs contend in this 58-page complaint, Maureen? What they say in the very first paragraph of their complaint, it – they say that, quote, the State of California has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to support its public schools in a way that ensures that all students are provided an opportunity to meet the state’s academic goals and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for success in our competitive economy, closed quote. In another part, they chastise the state’s system of funding education as, quote, unstable and unreliable, closed quote.
CAVANAUGH: Now what evidence do they show that this is having the effect of really not fulfilling the constitutional requirement that kids be educated?
EATON: Right, it’s the consequence, it’s the interesting evidence that they cite which is kind of depressing if you look at it from an educational standpoint separate and apart from the systemic flaws in funding that they point to. But they point to some very disturbing statistics from 2008-2009 about resources for education. For example, according to the complaint, California was 44th in the nation in per pupil spending during that period. And during that same period, New York spent more than $6,000 more per pupil than California did. It talked about how Texas had – the difference between California and Texas spending, even though California educates a lot more school children than Texas does. And this isn’t just an issue, by the way, of the rights of school children, particularly disadvantaged school children, to receive a fundamental education in line with the state’s mandates but also an issue of districts’ ability to fulfill their constitutional mandate.
CAVANAUGH: So what are the plaintiffs asking the court to do?
EATON: Right, and what the plaintiffs are asking the court to do is first say that what it – that there are these constitutional rights that are in the state constitution to an adequate school system. They’re also requiring the state – what they’re asking the – the court to do by way of remedy is, quote, to design, enact, fund and implement a system of public school finance, closed quote, that meets the goals of ensuring that all of the state’s children of all needs have equal access to the state’s mandated educational program and that the districts, of course, can fulfill their responsibilities under state law.
CAVANAUGH: Have any San Diego school districts joined in this lawsuit?
EATON: Yes, there was one. No individual San Diegans interestingly joined in it but there was one school district and that school district is Alpine Union School District, which is an elementary school district. It also contains a couple of middle schools and that is among the school districts that are suing. Look, it takes them five pages just to list all of the people who are suing. There are an awful lot of individuals, parents, schools and school districts, and school administrator (sic) and school organizations that are suing the state in what at least those who are suing are calling an historic lawsuit.
CAVANAUGH: Now what – how does the state respond? Has there been any response yet?
EATON: Well, at the risk of – First of all, they haven’t formally answered. There has really been a question. I talked to a spokesperson at the state education secretary’s office and they said they hadn’t even yet been formally served with the complaint, meaning they hadn’t formally received it from the plaintiffs. But what they’re saying is, look, in the risk of using a cliché, you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip. As far as they’re concerned, they are fulfilling their mandates under various state laws, the state constitution, Proposition 98 and so on that requires funding but there isn’t a whole lot of funding out there. Everybody knows that we’re in a state crisis. And what the plaintiffs appear to be reacting to, those who are suing appear to be reacting to, is that the state funding seems to be going down and down. At the very least, they need to – They say, look, this is an irrational way and it’s not consistent with the constitution, we want this fixed. And that’s what they want the court to do. This, of course, was filed in state court in Oakland in the County of Alameda.
CAVANAUGH: Well, considering that the courts have gotten involved in state prison funding, federal courts have at least, it’s not out of this world to expect that a court might get involved in the way we fund our education system.
EATON: Not at all, especially given, of course, the provisions. They talk about education being a priority but what this spokesperson at the education secretary’s office said was, look, and the state education secretary herself said was, look, Governor Schwarzenegger notwithstanding, the pressure has continued to make education a high priority but there are only so many resources and you can’t make up a revenue that isn’t there.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s move on to something much lighter…
EATON: This is kind of fun, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …than the two topics we’ve been talking about. Last October you told us about a lawsuit that involves a stand-up comedian who was being sued by her mother-in-law and, I think, a few other people.
CAVANAUGH: There has been an important ruling in the case but first remind us about the facts.
EATON: Well, this is one of the interesting things about this segment because we can follow cases from cradle to grave, and I’ll explain the grave part in a moment. Sunda Croonquist is half African-American and half Swedish and she married a white Jewish man whom she met sometime later and she converted to Judiasm. Ms. Croonquist’s husband’s mother and sister, in other words, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, sued her for defamation and other claims for making comics in her – comments in her stand-up routine that suggested that her mother-in-law was a racist and her sister-in-law was stupid. And there were various jokes, if you want to call them that, that are on her website in – that are available on the internet.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So she got this lawsuit and last month a federal judge in New Jersey sided with Ms. Croonquist in throwing the suit out of court. Why?
EATON: The court ruled that none of the statements that Ms. Croonquist made were defamatory because they were all opinions, in effect, and rather than statements of facts that could be proved true or false. Interestingly, the court did analyze this question of defamation under the law of three different states including California because Ms. Croonquist lives here and because of where she lives it’s possible that some of these comments were uploaded onto the internet here in the state of California. Now under California law, according to the court, a statement is only defamatory if it—and I’ll quote—involves the intentional publication of a statement of fact that is false on privilege and has a natural tendency to injure or, closed quote, which causes measurable damages. The court concluded that the statement, for example, that Ms. Croonquist’s mother-in-law was a racist is a personal opinion with some basis in stated fact such as her treatment because her belief in – that her treatment was caused by her ethnic background and, therefore, quote, it does not imply that her mother-in-law believes in the subjugation of an entire race, closed quote. So this is really a question of opinion that the court said, and defamation has to be based on a false statement of fact even if it is truly very hurtful, as it apparently was to this woman’s mother-in-law.
CAVANAUGH: Now Sunda Croonquist, the comedian that we’re talking about wasn’t the first comedian sued for defamation. Tell us about a previous case that was brought here in California, in federal court in California, against comedian Robin Williams.
EATON: Yeah, I mentioned this on the last segment very briefly in October. But in 1985, the California Court of Appeal, actually, it was the state court in San Francisco, resolved whether comedian Robin Williams could be sued for defaming a northern California winemaker by suggesting in his routine that the winemaker’s product was inferior somehow and especially popular with African-Americans. There was dispute about whether Mr. Williams intentionally referred to the name of this winemaker as distinguished from white wine by calling it black wine. And the court said, look, this was purely coincidental. The court rejected, however, Mr. Williams’ argument that a comedian’s jokes can never be defamatory. Not true. The court held that it may in circumstances defame even if the words used could not be understood in their literal sense to be true. But still the court threw it out because could not be viewed by a reasonable listener as saying that the nightclub audience who heard them could not reasonably believe that they were intended to be defamatory. The language showed that the wine was an obvious figment of Mr. Williams’ rather vivid and sometimes profane imagination.
CAVANAUGH: But there is still a warning there that comedians can cross the line.
EATON: Be very careful, that’s right. If you start making factual statements that can be proved true or false and that hurt or have a tendency to injure, you better watch out because you can be sued for defamation, at least here in our state of California.
CAVANAUGH: Dan, thank you.
EATON: Thank you, Maureen…
CAVANAUGH: A lot of different topics.
EATON: …for a lot of different topics. We covered the gamut from education to politics to comedy and sometimes those three intersect in ways we don’t…
CAVANAUGH: In ways we don’t expect.
EATON: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. I’ve been speaking with Dan Eaton. He’s These Days legal analyst. If you’d like to respond to anything you’ve heard on this segment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.