In Wake of Citizens United, Another Campaign-Finance Reg. Bites The Dust

March 26, 2010 10:43 am

There was bad news and good news — which could turn into bad news — for backers of efforts to reduce the role of money in politics today.

First, the bad news: In a decision that reflects the broad impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down limits on contributions to political groups that spend money to support or oppose candidates.The court found that the $5,000 annual limit on contributions to such groups is unconstitutional, writing that the Citizens United ruling “resolves this appeal,” in favor of, a group that appears to have been created with the specific purpose of challenging campaign-finance regulations.

A report on SCOTUSblog concludes that the ruling “significantly broadens the impact of Citizens United, extending its constitutional reasoning from campaign spending to campaign donations.”

Now, the good news that could turn bad: A three-judge panel of the D.C. District Court unanimously rejected a bid by the RNC to get the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban struck down. The RNC is seeking to raise unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals.

But the RNC seems to have expected the setback. It already announced earlier this month that it has hired top conservative lawyer Ted Olson for the inevitable challenge to the Supreme Court. And as election law expert Rick Hasen notes, today’s ruling appears to offer the RNC encouragement that they may get a better result there.

The judges write:

In due course, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to clarify or refine this aspect of McConnell as the Court sees fit, and to consider the RNC’s challenge to § 323(a) in light of the RNC’s pledge to no longer grant preferential access to soft money contributors. As a lower court, however, we do not believe we possess authority to clarify or refine McConnell in the fashion advocated by the RNC, or to otherwise get ahead of the Supreme Court.

In other words: Just be patient, and you may get what you want.

Late Update: In a statement, the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for stronger campaign-finance laws, calls the ruling “demonstrates a judicial lack of understanding of the realities of the way corruption threatens our elections,” and ignore[s] history and the reality that independent expenditures can and do corrupt, buy access to, and curry favor with Members of Congress, and residents of the White House.”

Late Late Update: RNC chair Michael Steele confirms that his group will challenge the ruling in their case:

In light of the Citizens United and SpeechNow rulings, today’s decision underscores the need to restore political parties’ First Amendment rights and balance to the political process. The very core of the First Amendment protects the ability of political parties not only to nominate and elect candidates at every level, but also to engage in discussions about public policy issues of national importance. As a matter of course, we plan to appeal this matter to the Supreme Court.

And Olson adds, in a statement also sent by the RNC:

For more than 200 years political parties have played a central role in American democracy. Today’s decision leaves special-interest groups and labor unions with more power to influence our elections than political parties. We will demonstrate to the Supreme Court that the First Amendment does not tolerate that result.

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