A federal appeals court in Washington today struck down several campaign finance rules that restrict the ability of non-profits to fund election-related activities such as voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts and advertisements.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the rules, created by the Federal Election Commission, violated the First Amendment, reversing a lower-court ruling in a suit brought by pro-choice group EMILY’s List.
The FEC issued rules after the 2004 election which required political committees and 527 non-profit groups to fund much of their election activities out of "hard money" accounts. Individual donations to those accounts are capped at $5,000 annually. The rules also said that donations would be considered hard money if they were used to support or oppose a candidate.
Writing for the court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote that while the Supreme Court had allowed limitations on contributions to candidates and political parties, it had frowned on laws that capped expenditures. He wrote that the court has generally allowed individuals to spend money on elections without any limit, excluding donations to candidates.
“If one person is constitutionally entitled to spend $1 million to run advertisements supporting a candidate (as Buckley held), it logically follows that 100 people are constitutionally entitled to donate $10, each to a non-profit group that will run advertisements supporting a candidate.”
The FEC rules also did not have a legitimate corruption fighting purpose, Kavanaugh wrote.
“As the Court has explained the anti-corruption principle, mere donations to non-profit groups cannot corrupt candidates and officeholders,” he wrote.
The court also found that the FEC rules overreached the commission’s authority under federal election law. Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who concurred only in part, argued that the court should have focused on the statutory issues, and avoided ruling on the First Amendment issue.
“I have grave doubts about the court’s analysis, which bears at most a passing resemblance to the parties’ briefs, and which will profoundly affect campaign finance law in this circuit,” Brown wrote.
The decision provoked anger from campaign finance reformers. In written statement, Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center called the decision a “broad overreach.”
As well as the recent regulations, the court “called into question the constitutionality of limits on contributions to independent political committees enacted 35 years ago – limits that were not even challenged in the lawsuit,” Malloy said. “Although the FEC has had, at best, a spotty record enforcing these limits, the Court’s decision today has the potential to facilitate a return to the massive soft money spending by 527 groups in prior elections.”