Court Decision Puts Candidate Contribution Limits at Risk

Lawsuits against contribution caps have been filed in Alaska, Montana and New Mexico

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited corporate and union election spending, is now being used six years later to fight state limits on how much money individuals and groups can contribute directly to candidates.

Lawsuits against contribution caps have been filed in Alaska, Montana and New Mexico. Those challenges are being buoyed by a federal appeals court ruling last year that cites Citizens United in making it more difficult for states to justify donation limits.

“Contribution limits throughout the country are very vulnerable now,” said James Bopp, an Indiana attorney who is leading two of the lawsuits. “It’s going to be tough for any state to justify their limits under that standard.”

Thirty-eight states have limits on how much a candidate can receive from an individual, political party or political action committee. In general, the rules are meant to promote equality, prevent corruption and keep the rich from overly influencing the political process.

“If you take it away, the sky’s going to fall,” Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said.

Driving the effort to dismantle candidate campaign caps is a ruling last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California and eight other Western states. It said states now must prove their caps are preventing what the court called quid pro quo corruption, such as bribery.

Quid pro quo corruption is rare, and it is difficult to prove that the limits are preventing it, Bopp said.

Citizens United, a decision that came down in 2010, loosened restrictions on indirect contributions, or campaign spending by groups that doesn’t directly go to candidates. The ruling led to the rise of super PACs.

Bopp used the Citizens United decision to argue and win another Supreme Court case in 2014 that struck down aggregate contribution limits in federal elections. Those rules had capped the total amount a single donor could give to multiple candidates and political parties.

The 9th Circuit ruling and the 2014 Supreme Court case will be felt far beyond the Western states that fall within the appeals court’s jurisdiction, legal experts said.

“If the court were to strike down direct limits under the new standard, that, I think, would be quite a big deal,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a campaign finance expert. “Direct contribution limits and disclosure are all that’s left of the post-Watergate campaign finance laws.”

The 9th Circuit’s ruling came in a lawsuit brought by Bopp against Montana’s contribution limits, which were approved by the voters in 1994 and are among the lowest in the nation. For example, individuals can give no more than $660 to candidates for governor.

Bopp is now taking the 9th Circuit decision back to a federal judge who previously ruled in his favor. Bopp hopes to get Montana’s limits struck down before the state’s June 7 primary.

Bopp argues that such limits drive money into super PACs and special interest groups that are less accountable and less transparent. Bopp, who also is challenging New York City’s contribution limits on people who do business with the city, says the caps also infringe on candidates’ free speech rights.

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