Court strikes limits on contributions to independent political groups

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; 2:37 PM

A federal appeals court on Friday handed another victory to conservative opponents of campaign-finance restrictions, striking down limits on individual contributions to independent groups who want to use the money for or against candidates in federal elections.

But in its unanimous decision, the nine-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia also said that a conservative group called SpeechNow.org must disclose its donors and other details of its finances to the Federal Election Commission, a requirement that the group had sought to overturn.

Steve Simpson, a lawyer who argued the case on behalf of SpeechNow.org, called the decision voiding contribution limits "a tremendous victory for free speech" and said it "ensures that all Americans can band together to make their voices heard during elections." At the same time, the group decried the decision on disclosure and signaled that it would appeal the issue to the Supreme Court.

The ruling also amounts to a mixed bag for beleaguered advocates of campaign-finance restrictions, who are relieved by the disclosure requirements but angered by the court's decision to strike down limits on contributions to independent political groups. The decision follows from the Supreme Court's landmark decision in January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which found that corporations are akin to individuals when it comes to political speech and are free to spend as much as they like for or against candidates.

In a separate decision issued Friday by a three-judge panel, the Republican National Committee lost a bid to raise unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals, setting the stage for further litigation at the Supreme Court.

Taken together, the rulings underscore the uncertainty that hangs over the patchwork system of federal spending restrictions put in place in the 1970s and strengthened by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. The SpeechNow.org decision effectively expands the scope of a new, more free-wheeling campaign-finance system emerging in the wake of January's Citizens United decision, which swept aside decades of legislative restrictions on the role of corporations in political campaigns by allowing independent groups to raise unlimited funds as long as they do not contribute money directly to candidates.

But Friday's decision also endorsed requirements that such groups continue to disclose where they get their money and how they spend it. And the RNC ruling means that political parties and candidates are still subject to stricter standards, at least for now.

Paul Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, which favors limits on political spending, called the removal of limits on contributions "a significant loss for the American public." He also said there is a good chance that the Supreme Court, which ignored its own precedents in issuing the 5 to 4 Citizens United ruling, may be eager to address the limits kept in place by Friday's rulings.

Opponents of restrictions on political spending viewed the decisions much differently. Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, which helped bring the SpeechNow case to court, said the ruling in that case "has moved us one step closer to ending this nation's failed 35-year experiment with campaign finance 'reform' and restoring the First Amendment to its proper place."

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