State Ethics Commission
The term "immediate family" which appears in the campaign contributions portion of the Ethics in Government Act refers to a candidate's spouse and children.
An opinion of this office has been requested regarding the meaning of the term "immediate family" which appears in the Ethics in Government Act, Article 2A "Contributions To Candidates For Public Office," O.C.G.A. § 21-5-41(c). Placed in context, the Act exempts immediate family members of a candidate from the maximum allowable contribution limits imposed in that Code Section. Thus, the meaning of "immediate family" has a direct bearing upon those persons who can contribute to campaigns without regard to spending limits.
Although this article of the Act contains a definitional section, see O.C.G.A. § 21-5-40, the term "immediate family" was not defined by the General Assembly. In the absence of a controlling definition, language in statutes is given its ordinary and usual signification. O.C.G.A. § 1-3-1(b). "Immediate family" is defined by Black's Law Dictionary 750 (6th ed. 1990), to mean "one's parents, wife or husband, children, and brothers and sisters." This definition would appear consistent with similar usage by the General Assembly elsewhere in the Code. See O.C.G.A. § 51-1-22.
However, this term is not used in isolation in the Act. The General Assembly did define the term "immediate family" with respect to lobbyist disclosure statements. See O.C.G.A. § 21-5-70(4). When a specific definition is used, the defined term means what the statute dictates unless a different
construction is required by context. O.C.G.A. § 1-3-2. The definition of "immediate family" contained in Code Section 21-5-70(4) is narrower and is limited to the spouse or child of a public official. Compare Maddox v. Queen, 150 Ga. App. 408, 414-15 (1979)(Deen, J., concurring) (describing fundamental family unit as spouses and child).
The campaign disclosure and lobbyist disclosure laws, being contained in the same Act, must be considered in pari materia. It is an elementary rule of statutory construction that a statute must be construed in relation to other statutes dealing with the same subject matter. Bennett v. Wood, 188 Ga. App. 630, 632 (1988). Further, construction of statutes requires determination of the legislative intent, keeping in mind the old law, the evil, and the remedy. O.C.G.A. § 1-3-1(a). The Ethics in Government Act is a remedial statute designed to assure the accountability of public officials. Thus, a narrow construction of the term "immediate family" which is consistent with that found in the lobbyist disclosure statute would be proper. Further, adopting this construction would not invade a candidate's constitutional right of free expression since permitting a spouse and child to make unlimited contributions would accommodate the candidate's right to use personal funds to broadcast a political message. See Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976); 1992 Op. Att'y Gen. 92-26.
Based upon the foregoing, it is my official opinion that the term "immediate family" which appears in the campaign contributions portion of the Ethics In Government Act refers to a candidate's spouse and children.
WILLIAM M. DROZE
Assistant Attorney General