Suit charges Amendment 54 violates free speech

City and County of Denver building (Photo/fusionpanda, Flickr)
City and County of Denver building (Photo/fusionpanda, Flickr)
A legal challenge to a controversial state constitutional amendment was filed today in Denver District Court on grounds that it violates federal free speech and due process rights.

As we noted throughout the election season, Amendment 54 was touted as a “clean government” measure by its backers. But its aims were far less transparent. The amendment, which went into effect Dec. 31, prohibits both unions and sole-source government contractors from giving to political campaigns. The unspoken goal is to snuff out labor’s largely pro-Democratic contributions.

Except that pesky U.S. Constitution — namely the First and Fourteenth Amendments — prevents citizens’ political voices from being squelched.

Voters narrowly passed Amendment 54 in November by a 51-49 margin after a series of contentious attack ads and counter arguments about the secretive group backing the measure that would not disclose it funders.

The lawsuit challenging the amendment on a constitutional basis is not unexpected.

According to a statement released by the plaintiffs:

The lawsuit’s primary concerns are that Amendment 54 unfairly restricts campaign and political contributions and that it creates a burden on Colorado’s nonprofit community by making it more difficult to attract and retain top quality board members.

Many non-profits provide services at least partially funded by the state or local governments. Amendment 54 includes the funding for those services as ‘sole source government contracts.’ The amendment extends beyond officers and board members of non-profits that receive government funds; it also prohibits the members of officers’ and board members’ extended families from making campaign contributions.

The plaintiffs include:

• Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver. As chairman and chief executive officer of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), Mr. Ritchie is precluded from contributing to political campaigns because the DCPA has a sole source government contract with the City of Denver.

• Pat Hamill, president and chief executive officer of Oakwood Homes. Since his company has sole source contracts with local subdivisions, Hamill is subject to the restrictions of Amendment 54. And as a board member of the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver and the University of Denver, he is precluded from future contributions to campaigns of candidates for elected office or political parties.

• Charlie Brown, Denver City councilman. Brown serves as a Board member of Visit Denver (formerly known as the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau), which has a sole source contract as the City of Denver’s official marketing agency. As a result of Amendment 54, Brown cannot even contribute to his own reelection campaign.

• The Children’s Hospital, recognized as one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. The Children’s Hospital provides specialty services for children through state Medicaid contracts that are not provided by any other health care provider in Colorado, such as heart transplants and cancer treatments. A violation of Amendment 54 would prohibit The Children’s Hospital from providing such services to children for the next three years. Members have contemplated resignation from the Board.

• The University of Denver, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit higher education institution, is a sole source contract holder with the City and County of Denver, the state of Colorado and various other governmental entities. Amendment 54’s severe First Amendment restrictions make it more difficult for DU to attract and retain community leaders to serve on its Board of Trustees and in its senior administration.

“Amendment 54 could have catastrophic repercussions for children throughout Colorado,” said Jim Shmerling, president and CEO of The Children’s Hospital. “There is no one else in the state that can provide many of the services we offer, and it would be devastating if that care was jeopardized for children on Medicaid.”

The suit requests Gov. Bill Ritter and the executive director of the Department of Personnel and Administration from implementing or enforcing Amendment 54.