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, an attorney 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
The ruling also amounts to a mixed bag for beleagured 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 also 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 first 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, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, which favors limits
on political spending, said said 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."