Saturday, December 17, 2011

Seventh Circuit: Contribution Cap to Independent Group Violates First Amendment

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled this week in Wisconsin Right to Life v. Barland that Wisconsin's cap on contributions to independent political action committees violates the First Amendment. 

Here's Wisconsin's law:

No individual may make any contribution or contributions to all candidates for state and local offices and to any individuals who or committees which are subject to a registration requirement under s. 1105, including legislative campaign committees of a political party, to the extent of more than a total of $10,000 in any calendar year.

Wisconsin Right to Life, an independent organization according to the court, sought preenforcement review after two individuals were foreclosed from contributing to it because they exceeded the $10,000 contribution cap.

The court ruled that the cap violated free speech, insofar as it restricted contributions to independent organizations.  The court explained:

Importantly for our purposes here, Citizens United made it clear that the government's interest in preventing actual or apparent corruption--an interest generally strong enough to justify some limits on contributions to candidates--cannot be used to justify restrictions on independent expenditures. . . .

"The separation between candidates and independent expenditure groups negates the possibility that independent expenditures will result in the sort of quid pro quo corruption with which [the Court's] case law is concerned."  In short, "[t]he candidate-funding circuit is broken."  Citizens United thus held as a categorical matter that "independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption."  [Quoting Arizona Free Enterprise Club.] 

Op. at 25-26.

The court rejected the state's argument that the cap addressed indirect quid pro quo corruption and the appearance of corruption, saying that Citizens United set a categorical rule: Independent expenditures do not lead to these problems.

The court's ruling is hardly a surprise in the wake of Citizens United and the D.C. Circuit's 2010 ruling in v. FEC and the Ninth Circuit's 2010 ruling in Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce v. Long Beach, among others. 


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