D.C. Court Rules Campaign Contribution Limits On Individuals is Unconstitutional

Appeals court decision unanimous in SpeechNow.org vs. FEC

A D.C. court has handed down a ruling that could mean even
more political ad money flowing into the Midterm election cycle.

Saying that the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United
had resolved the appeal, the Federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit
Friday (March 26) ruled that the campaign finance law contribution limits by
individuals to SpeechNow, a 527 group advocating the election of federal
candidates, are unconstitutional.

That came in a unanimous decision by all nine members of the
court in SpeechNow.org vs. the FEC. And just as in Citizens United, the D.C.
court held that while the contribution limits (or expenditure limits in the
case of Citizens United) were unconstitutional, reporting and organizational
requirements for the group were not. "The public has an interest in
knowing who is speaking about a candidate and who is funding that speech,"
said the court, which also upheld the requirement that the group register as a
political committee.

In the September Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court
removed the ban on direct corporate and union funding of campaign ads, though
not the reporting requirements, calling it an unconstitutional restriction on
political speech.

The FEC had argued that because Citizens United was about
expenditure and not contribution limits, the Supreme Court decision did not
apply. But, writing for the court Friday, Chief Judge David Sentelle disagreed:
"Because Citizens United holds that independent expenditures do not
corrupt or give the appearance of corruption as a matter of law, then the
government can have no anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to
independent expenditure-only organizations. No matter which standard of review
governs contribution limits, the limits on contributions to SpeechNow cannot

Given that finding, he said, "this simplifies the task
of weighing the First Amendment interests implicated by contributions to
SpeechNow against the government's interest in limiting such contributions....
Thus, we do not need to quantify to what extent contributions to SpeechNow are
an expression of core political speech. We don't need to answer whether giving
money is speech per se, or if contributions are merely symbolic expressions of
general support, or if it matters in this case that just one person, David
Keating, decides what the group will say. All that matters is that the First
Amendment cannot be encroached upon for naught."

The Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), which supported
the Supreme Court's call, praised the D.C. Circuit's decision.

"We are grateful that the court recognized the
importance of the right of association in politics and speech," said CCP VP and
SpeechNow co-counsel Stephen Hoersting in a statement. "The court affirmed that
groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires-and corporations and unions
after Citizens United-have the right to spend without limit to independently
advocate for or against federal candidates."

But CCP was not as pleased with the court's upholding of the
requirement to register as a political committee. "It's unfortunate that the
court did not recognize how political committee status regulation by the FEC
places restrictive burdens on grassroots political groups," said CCP and
Former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith. "The court's decision means that the
FEC regulatory regime will continue to favor large, established special
interests over ad hoc groups of like-minded citizens who gather together to
enhance their voices in politics."