Politics

A federal appeals court has upheld a Kentucky law that bans lobbyists from giving gifts to state legislators or donating to their campaigns.

Republican state Sen. John Schickel filed a lawsuit in 2015 to try and get the rule struck down, saying it violated his First Amendment rights.

Schickel argued that the law was too vague and effectively banned legislators from accepting a bottle of water or walking into an air conditioned room paid for by a lobbyist.

A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that the board in charge of enforcing ethics rules — the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission — has never punished lawmakers for receiving a bottle of water.

“In the unlikely event that KLEC ever charges anyone for (or threatens enforcement of) such conduct, an as-applied challenge would be appropriate,” the ruling stated.

“A person of ordinary intelligence would know that this language — used in both legal and common parlance — bars them from accepting or soliciting money or a gift that serves as payment for a service provided.”

The ethics commission was defended by Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear in the lawsuit.

The ethics rules were created in 1993 following an FBI investigation that revealed widespread corruption in the state legislature, leading to the conviction of more than a dozen lawmakers.

In the ruling, the judges said that the ethics laws were not unconstitutional.

“Kentucky’s legislature acted to protect itself and its citizens from the damaging effects of corruption. Because these laws are closely drawn to further Kentucky’s anti-corruption interest, they pass constitutional muster,” the opinion stated.

Anthony Wilhoit, chair of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, praised the ruling.

“One of the most important purposes of the legislative ethics law is to forbid legislators from soliciting things of value or campaign contributions from lobbyists,” Wilhoit said. “This decision is a clear win for the integrity of the legislative process, as emphatically recognized by the Court of Appeals.”

A lower court ruled in 2017 that Kentucky’s law banning lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers was too vague.

After that ruling, Schickel said that the ethics rules “restricted certain people completely from the political process.”

“Corruption should be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law by the FBI, the attorney general, and all law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction. Corruption in government is a violation of the people’s trust, and those convicted should serve long prison terms. But, this ruling is about freedom of speech,” Schickel wrote.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.