Lawyers circle Reina case
Legal experts discuss city's case against ex-council candidate
As Craig resident and former City Council candidate Francisco Reina prepares for what he hopes will be a quick and painless court appearance later this month, others consider his case far more important.
After the April municipal election, Reina submitted a spending report to city officials declaring he spent $1,512.78 of his personal money on his campaign, more than three times the city charter’s $500 limit.
He faces a Class A municipal violation, which carries a possible sentence of a fine between $75 and $1,000 and as many as 180 days in jail.
Reina received his court summons Wednesday, and he is scheduled to appear at 8:30 a.m. June 17 in municipal court at Craig City Hall.
Reina said he wants people to know he’s sorry for the situation and that overspending was a mistake.
“I didn’t run because I wanted to be on City Council,” he said. “I ran because I want to take care of the young people here. We need to do something better.”
He added he would be happy to pay a small fine and move on with his life.
Before the May 26 council meeting, when its members voted, 6-0, to recommend prosecution, City Attorney Kenny Wohl said he did not think it was wise to pursue the case.
The issues at hand are too murky, he said.
Craig could be sucked into a lengthy court battle about whether its ordinance violates a person’s right to free speech.
Wohl said the city could wind up fighting appeal after appeal, and in the end, the local ordinance may not stand the test of constitutional review.
The U.S. Supreme Court has, after all, already ruled on this issue, Wohl said.
That case, heard in 1976 and known as Buckley v. Valeo, probably would be Reina’s best defense, said professor Robert Hardaway, who teaches at the University of Denver College of Law.
“With that decision, they came down and said spending one’s own money is considered part of the right to free speech,” Hardaway said. “In other words, if I want to spend a lot of money to buy signs and get my info to people, I could spend as much of my own money as I want. If I was a defendant in that case, to me, that would be my main defense.”
The Supreme Court rarely reverses its rulings, as Wohl suggested to city officials it might be willing to do, Hardaway added.
There are exceptions, such as the seesaw of policies regarding whether the Constitution allows for racial segregation. The Supreme Court originally upheld segregation in 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson but completely reversed its position in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education.
However, those instances are very rare, and many times the best one can hope for is a “clarification,” Hardaway said. In that case, the court would differentiate one case from another, and allow itself to rule differently.
In fact, that onus will be on any court that hears Reina’s case, Hardaway said. No court, including the Craig Municipal Court, can discard the Buckley decision because the judge disagrees with the verdict.
“Lower courts cannot repudiate the Buckley decision,” Hardaway said. “You can’t challenge a Supreme Court ruling. The best they could do is differentiate the facts and say this case is separate from Buckley. That’d be a tough argument to make, because the first amendment applies to all the states.”
Hardaway said he didn’t have enough information to give an opinion on whether the city charter violates the Buckley decision, but another legal expert feels that it does.
“The spending limit at issue is a violation of the first amendment,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “Certainly the city can’t legally prevent a person from spending their own money on their own speech, whether it’s to promote a candidacy or for any other purpose.”
Silverstein noted that the Supreme Court has upheld the Buckley decision in recent years, including the 2006 case of Randall v. Sorrell.
Although that case did not deal with a candidate’s contributions to his or her own campaign, it did show a majority of the justices support the previous ruling.
Silverstein added that he does not see any reason to separate Reina’s case from the Buckley decision, and the ACLU would be happy to argue that position in court.
“Certainly, if Mr. Reina is interested in ACLU assistance, we would certainly be willing to offer him legal counsel in this matter,” he said, adding ACLU representation would be free of charge. “The ACLU is usually willing to defend any person’s right to free speech, for free, when and wherever it is being violated.”
Wohl would not say how the city plans to proceed in the case and argue its right to put limits on personal campaign spending.
“We’re in court right now,” he said. “I’m not going to try this case in the press.”
The issues at hand “are very compelling,” Wohl said, though he wonders what Craig residents think and whether they believe any of the legal wrangling is worth the effort.
“This could attract some legal minds on both sides of the issue, for sure,” he said. “For the lawyers, it’s an extremely interesting issue, but I wonder if it is for other people.”
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