Court upholds Phila. campaign-finance limits

A state appeals court yesterday upheld Philadelphia's campaign-finance limits, ruling that the legislature did not expressly prohibit municipalities from controlling political donations in local races.

Because state election law is silent on the matter, Philadelphia can decide "to change the political culture" of its own elections to ensure their integrity, Commonwealth Court said in a 6-1 decision.

The ruling upholds the caps on campaign donations that City Council enacted in 2003 in response to the pay-to-play scandal that was rocking City Hall.

The contribution caps - $5,000 from an individual donor and $20,000 from a political committee - have shaped the race for mayor, making it harder for four rivals to raise enough money to compete with self-financed millionaire Tom Knox in the May 15 Democratic primary.

One of those candidates, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, vowed yesterday to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

"We cannot allow one candidate to buy the election while others toil under limits," Fattah spokesman Solomon Jones said in a statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that people have a First Amendment right to spend as much of their own money as they want on a campaign. Knox has paid $4.3 million for TV ads.

Yesterday's decision by Commonwealth Court, an intermediate rung of the judiciary, overturned the December ruling of Common Pleas Court Judge Allan L. Tereshko. He threw out the city ordinance on the ground that only the state can regulate campaign matters.

In yesterday's majority opinion, Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner wrote that there are only a few areas in which local government cannot enact rules that supplement state law: alcohol, banking and strip mining. She also said the city ordinance furthered the goals of the state Ethics Act.

The dissenter, Judge James Gardner Colins, wrote that the legislature surely never intended the "balkanization" of election laws, with standards changing from town to town.

Colins said the decision was "well intended" but amounted to legislating from the bench.

Mayoral candidates have been raising money in accord with the limits while the litigation was pending. Supporters of the ordinance were jubilant yesterday - and said that even if the state Supreme Court invalidates it, such a decision would likely come too late to change this campaign.

"This ruling takes away one of the clouds from the primary," said Zack Stalberg, head of the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy, the watchdog group that joined the city in defending the ordinance. "It means there is a real limit to the buying and selling of influence."

Pennsylvania law does not limit the size of campaign contributions, and that was the condition that prevailed in city elections until 2003, when Council enacted the caps.

"It's a great decision," said former Councilman Michael A. Nutter, a candidate for mayor who championed passage of the caps in City Council.

It was Nutter, too, who started the chain of litigation that led to yesterday's ruling. A year ago, he sued other would-be mayoral candidates for raising cash in excess of the 2003 limits. He later joined in defending the ordinance by appealing Tereshko's ruling, as did the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. "The court recognized the goal here is to clean up the pay-to-play culture, the overarching influence of too much money in our process," Nutter said yesterday.

When Nutter sued other would-be candidates last year, one of them, labor leader John Dougherty, countersued, contending only the state could regulate local campaigns.

Dougherty has not decided whether to appeal, his lawyer, George Bochetto, said. Dougherty had also asked the courts to make Nutter resign from Council last year because he was already acting as a mayoral candidate. (The city charter prohibits holding one office while seeking another.)

Nutter quit Council last July, so the lower court nixed Dougherty's claim. Yesterday's majority agreed. Judge Rochelle Friedman dissented, saying Nutter might have waited too long to quit Council.

The suit wasn't the only challenge to the caps. In a sign of how Knox's spending spree has shaken the city's political establishment, Councilman Jim Kenney launched a brief effort to repeal the caps in February.

A Fattah appeal of yesterday's ruling would mean two disputes in the mayor's race could land in the state Supreme Court. The other is the challenge to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's candidacy papers.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or