RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The 4th Circuit issued two major campaign finance rulings, both involving cases filed by North Carolina Right to Life. In the first, a 2-1 majority ruled that three provisions of the state’s campaign finance law “simply go too far in regulating ordinary political speech to be considered constitutional.”
The NCRL claims that it has been reluctant to contribute to past campaigns for fear of being deemed a “political committee” under North Carolina election law. The designation carries more reporting requirements and other heightened scrutiny, according to the anti-abortion group.
Two political action committees affiliated with the plaintiff also challenged a “context prong” that tries to determine if a communication supports or opposes the nomination or election of a particular candidate. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the state unconstitutionally applied contribution limits to political committees, including the NCRL Committee Fund for Independent Political Expenditures, which make only independent expenditures and do not candidates’ campaigns.
The majority held that the context prong is overbroad and vague, because the speaker has no way of knowing if a communication falls within the regulation of the context prong.
Similarly, it held that the definition of “political committee” is too broad, as Supreme Court precedent only allows states to regulate entities with “the” major purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate, not “a” major purpose, as stated in North Carolina election law. As written, the provision threatens to “regulate organizations primarily engaging in protected political speech.”
The appellate court again turned to Supreme Court precedent to decide that the contribution cap is unconstitutional. It stressed that the justices have never upheld the constitutionality of applying contribution limits to political committees that exclusively make independent expenditures.
Judge Michael issued a fervent dissent, arguing that the majority’s decision “severely restricts the well-established power of a state to regulate its elections.”
In the second case, also titled NCRL v. Leake, the 4th Circuit unanimously upheld provisions of the 2002 North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act, which allows certain candidates seeking election to the state’s Supreme Court and appellate courts to receive public matching funds.
To receive the funds, the candidate must meet the act’s eligibility requirements, raise a threshold amount of money, and abide by restrictions on the amount of contributions they accept and the campaign expenditures they make.
The NCRL, its two political action committees and former state Supreme Court candidate W. Russell Duke Jr. challenged the matching-fund scheme on the basis that it chills their ability to contribute to a campaign, to avoid having matching public funds disbursed to a candidate it opposes. Plaintiffs also challenge a provision that bans a nonparticipating candidate from accepting contributions 21 days before a general election.
The circuit panel concluded that the challenged provisions served to protect the “vital interest in an independent judiciary.” The system corrects any substantial imbalances in fundraising and spending, ensuring that money alone does not select the judiciary.