Citizens United, Episode IV: A New Hope for Party Contribution Limits?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 20, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The D.C. Circuit Court has been quiet this week, but an opinion from the D.C. District Court is set to create a rumbling that no amount of Tums can abate.

In Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 struck down limitations on campaign spending by corporations. That same year in v. FEC, the D.C. Circuit expanded that to include spending by PACs not affiliated with candidates. In this last term, McCutcheon v. FEC expanded the flip side of Citizens United by striking down limitations on aggregate contributions to candidates and PACs.

Steel yourself for the next exciting episode. The Republican and Libertarian Parties asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to strike down limitations on contributions to their parties' non-coordinated campaign funds. In an opinion issued Tuesday, the court agreed that there was something there worth adjudicating.

It Hasn't Gotten Sexy Quite Yet

At this stage, the plaintiffs want an injunction preventing enforcement of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act's contribution limits to political parties. But before we get there, the BCRA provides for a three-judge panel to hear claims, and that's exactly what the District Court decided: whether to even convene the panel in the first place.

While the FEC argued that plaintiffs' claims were foreclosed by language in Citizens United and McCutcheon expressly upholding contribution limits to political parties, the District Court disagreed, as the plaintiffs couched their claims in terms of whether the same danger of quid pro quo corruption -- which is now officially the only reason campaign finance laws exist -- merits Section 403's prohibition. That's enough, the court said, to raise an issue before the three-judge panel.

Unfortunately, the plaintiffs here goofed: They shouldn't have asked for a three-judge panel because those exist only to challenge BCRA amendments. The base party contribution limits are not new, but that's OK; the constitutional questions will be heard by an en banc panel of the D.C. Circuit Court.

Injunction Junction

The plaintiffs also requested an injunction preventing enforcement of the limits pending the outcome of the case. No dice, said the court. The plaintiffs' claims may be enough to trigger a BCRA panel, but the court didn't think there was a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, as the claims "are in tension with forty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence upholding contribution limits to political parties." The court was also unwilling to "upset the entire federal campaign finance framework only months prior to the next federal election based on an as yet untested legal theory."

It was only a matter of time before the slow march to dismantle campaign finance laws reached this place. Even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld party contribution limits, they've recently decided that they're not opposed to quickly changing their minds.

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