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Fresno County Lawsuit Against Political Candidates Stifles Free Speech, Wastes Taxpayers' Money
Opinion
By Opinion
Published 3 weeks ago on
April 2, 2024

Will Fresno County continue to pursue what so far has been a losing court battle to limit how much Garry Bredefeld, left, and Luis Chavez can spend on their supervisorial election campaigns? (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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Ethically challenged politicians often prioritize their job security above all else. Yet, even with this focus on self-preservation, many resist the temptation to misuse taxpayer dollars to stifle political opposition. However, Fresno County stands as a recent notable exception to this general restraint.

Garry Bredefeld

Opinion

A year ago, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors filed a lawsuit to limit what Councilmember Luis Chavez and I could spend to talk to voters in our campaigns for the Board of Supervisors. The Board authorized its taxpayer-funded in-house county lawyers and paid a 250-attorney Los Angeles law firm to sue us with the goal of preventing us from using funds from earlier campaigns to challenge Board of Supervisors incumbents.

Using funds from prior elections is completely legal, constitutionally protected, and happens all the time when candidates run for a different office. The county’s lawsuit against us is something never seen before – incumbents using taxpayer funds (your funds) to sue their challengers to limit their ability to speak to voters.

When the case went to trial, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Skiles rejected the County’s lawsuit, explaining that for 50 years the U.S. Supreme Court has held that campaign funds are the equivalent of speech (because those funds are the only way for candidates to effectively communicate with voters). In other words, candidate spending is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Skiles’ Order reads like a primer on First Amendment constitutional law, with a half-dozen federal and state judicial opinions and authorities backing up his ruling against the county. The county has appealed the ruling, but unless it plans on overturning longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent (unlikely), the county’s appeal looks dead on arrival at the appellate court.

In a turn of justice, Judge Skiles recently mandated the county to cover our legal expenses which is more than $70,000. This may protect against the county recklessly continuing its ongoing lawfare war against us, while the county has already lost the battle over constitutional law.

Fresno County’s ‘Incumbent Protection Scheme’

What has been particularly troubling about this case is the funding for the county’s legal pursuits, including the fees for its own lawyers, the Los Angeles-based law firm, and now the fees for our attorneys, comes directly from the pocket of county taxpayers.

This questionable and irresponsible use of public funds is particularly egregious for supporters of free speech and fair elections because, while the county sought to silence challengers like myself and Councilmember Chavez, it openly permits incumbent county supervisors to spend unlimited amounts on their own elections. This entire misadventure has the unmistakable smell of what I called from the outset, an “Incumbent Protection Scheme.”

Looking ahead, the county now faces critical decisions.

First and foremost, it must come clean to taxpayers. It must transparently disclose the financial impact of its legal battle against myself and Councilmember Chavez. What are the actual costs to county taxpayers? How much has the L.A. law firm cost taxpayers?

Second, the county has appealed Judge Skiles’ ruling. If they decide to pursue the appeal, the county must reassure taxpayers that it possesses a plausible legal strategy on appeal to overturn a half-century of established constitutional law. Taxpayers need to know that the county is not continuing to pursue this litigation merely because it already has wasted significant amounts from the public treasury, that it is not throwing good money after bad.

Third, taxpayers deserve to know who within the county was responsible for green-lighting the lawsuit against two political opponents of incumbent supervisors. Were county leaders aware they could have sought free advice from the California Attorney General, who is on record as rejecting similar attempts from other counties to restrain candidate spending? Were they simply given poor advice from the county counsel? Or did they pursue this case knowing it was a fraught legal strategy with little chance of success?

Voters are being asked this year whether to retain or replace two incumbent members of the Board of Supervisors. Yet, until the county comes clean on the complete costs and true motivations of this reckless lawsuit, voters will not have the transparency and accountability they deserve on this and many other issues.

About the Author

Garry Bredefeld represents northeast neighborhoods on the Fresno City Council. He is challenging incumbent Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau.

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