A federal appeals court today held unconstitutional Wisconsin's $10,000 limit on the contributions that individuals may make to independent political action committees (PACs) each year.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that capping the amount of money that may be given to organizations that engage only in independent political speech violates the First Amendment.
The court directed Chief U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr. of the Eastern District of Wisconsin to enter an injunction permanently barring the state from applying its statutory limit on campaign contributions to those contributions made to independent PACs.
A Wisconsin statute places a $10,000 annual limit on the total amount of political contributions that an individual may make in a calendar year.
The 7th Circuit's ruling did not affect the application of the $10,000 limit to the contributions that individuals may make each year to political parties, state and local candidates and political committees that coordinate their activities with specific candidates or political parties.
A related challenge to a recently amended state rule that expanded Wisconsin's regulation of campaign finance is pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Wisconsin Prosperity Network v. Myse. No. 2010AP001937.
In the federal case, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit said there is a difference under the First Amendment between contributing money to a political candidate and spending that money to advertise one's own political views.
"Campaign contribution limits are generally permissible if the government can establish that they are 'closely drawn' to serve a 'sufficiently important interest,'" Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote for the panel, quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
Under Buckley, Sykes wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court "upheld limits on direct contributions to candidates based on the strength of the government's interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption."
In fact, "preventing actual or apparent quit pro quo corruption is the onlyinterest the Supreme Court has recognized as sufficient to justify campaign-finance restrictions," the panel said.
But it is a different matter when it comes to political expenditures by either candidates or individuals, the panel said.
Quoting Buckley , the panel said restricting such expenditures during a campaign "necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration and the size of the audience reached."
These effects on expression raise First Amendment concerns, the panel said.
"Accordingly, laws that burden spending for political speech — whether candidate spending or independent spending — get strict scrutiny and usually flunk," Sykes wrote, citing cases that included Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club Political Action Committee v. Bennett, 131 S. Ct. 2806 (2011) and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010).
The panel said Wisconsin's $10,000 limit as applied to contributions to independent PACs flunked.
"The threat of of quid pro quo corruption does not arise when independent groups spend money on political speech," Sykes wrote.
The panel said other federal appeals courts that reached the same conclusion have been the D.C. Circuit, in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, 599 F.3d 686 (2010); the 9th Circuit, in Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce v. City of Long Beach, 603 F.3d 684 (9th Cir. 2010); and the 4th Circuit, in North Carolina Right to Life Inc. v. Leake, 525 F.3d 274 (4th Cir. 2008).
The panel issued its ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Right to Life State Political Action Commission against the members of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB).
Joining the opinion were Judges Richard A. Posner and Joel M. Flaum. Wisconsin Right to Life State Political Action Committee v. Thomas Barland, et al., No. 11-2623.
James Bopp Jr. of Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom in Terre Haute, Ind., argued the case before the 7th Circuit on behalf of the Right to Life PAC. Clayton P. Kawski of the Wisconsin attorney general's office argued the case on behalf of the GAB members.
GAB spokesman Reid Magney said state officials were still reviewing the decision.
Bopp said he was pleased with the ruling.
"It was a very strong opinion that is consistent with rulings in three other circuits that you cannot have contribution limits on independent expenditure PACs," he said.