Lawsuit Seeks Reversal of 2010 Federal Appeals Court Ruling Which Sanctioned Super PAC Spending in US Elections
Released by Edward Erikson, Free Speech for People
A bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress and 2016 congressional candidates filed a federal lawsuit on November 4, 2016, against the Federal Election Commission seeking to end super PAC spending in US elections.
The lawsuit, led by Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA-33), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Representative Walter Jones (R-NC-3), seeks to reverse a federal appeals court ruling which created super PACs and has resulted in an explosion of spending in elections across the country.
The March 2010 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in SpeechNow.org v. FEC opened the door to super PACs by holding that the federal law limiting contributions to political committees to $5,000 per person each year did not apply to a political committee that promised to make only “independent expenditures.” The lawsuit filed today alleges that super PACs have now become vehicles for wealthy donors to evade campaign contribution limits designed to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. The US Supreme Court has yet to review this question.
As the lawsuit cites, more than forty percent of federal super PAC contributions, as of April 2016, had come from just 50 funders and their families. By late October 2016, federal super PACs had reported total receipts of more than $1.1 billion and total expenditures of more than $799 million.
The filing of this lawsuit today follows the filing of a complaint before the FEC on July 7, 2016, which named ten super PACs as respondents, including the Democratic and Republican super PACs for Senate and House candidates. The FEC complaint alleged that the super PACs “have knowingly accepted and continue to knowingly accept contributions that exceed the $5,000 per contributor limit, in some cases by over a hundredfold.” The $5,000 per contributor limit has remained a part of the federal campaign finance statute despite the SpeechNow ruling. The FEC complaint sought to enforce the $5,000 contribution limit, thereby abolishing super PACs in US elections.
Federal law allows for complainants to sue the FEC if the agency has not acted on their complaint within 120 days of its filing. To date, the FEC has taken no action on the complaint.
The lawsuit states, “[t]he availability of quid pro quo transactions through super PAC contributions creates a potential for corruption, and an appearance of corruption that is confirmed by the public. For this reason, enforcing the contribution limits…against super PACs is justified by the interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.”
Free Speech For People, a national non-profit public interest organization founded on the day of the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, serves as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, along with the Campaign for Accountability; Brad C. Deutsch and the law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer; and Stephen A. Weisbrod and the law firm of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley. Mr. Deutsch served as lead counsel to the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, and previously served for eight years as Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Advisor to Commissioner Steven T. Walther at the Federal Election Commission. The legal team also includes a bipartisan group of distinguished scholars and practitioners in the law of the First Amendment, corruption, and government ethics: Professor Laurence Tribe (Harvard Law School); Professor Albert Alschuler (Univ. of Chicago Law School, emeritus); Ambassador (ret.) Norman Eisen (former chief ethics counsel to President Barack Obama); and Professor Richard Painter (Univ. of Minnesota Law School, and former chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush).
For a copy of the complaint filed in federal court today and background materials, visit www.endingsuperpacs.org.