Bipartisan Super PAC Protest Gives Up the Ghost at High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned down an opportunity to revisit the decision that birthed the modern super PAC, allowing unlimited contributions to certain political action committees. 

Before the North Carolina Republican died last year, Congressman Walter Jones had led the bipartisan challenge with four others including Democratic Representative Ted Lieu and Senator Jeff Merkley.

The group had asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate 10 super PACs in the wake of the 2016 election, but the board found no reason to do so in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission, which allows certain political committees to contribute an unlimited amount of funds to political campaigns — so long as those committees were not organized by a campaign or political party.

The Federal Election Campaign Act otherwise imposes an annual limit of $5,000 on contributions to political committees. For Lieu and the other lawmakers, however, super PACs blur the lines between political and independent organization, as they are often dedicated to the election of a specific candidate. 

Their challenge came to quiet end at the high court on Monday, following previous defeats in District Court and at the D.C. Circuit.

Per their custom, the justices did not make any statement in refusing to take up the case. No writs of certiorari were granted in this morning’s order list.

Represented by Jeffrey Fisher at the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Clinic, the lawmakers noted that two-thirds of super PAC funding has come from individual donors with $1 million contributions since 2016.

“In the run-up to the 2016 election, just fifty mega-donors and their relatives contributed about 41% of the over $700 million donate to Super PACs,” their petition for certiorari argued. 

Fisher did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

But the Regan-appointed U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote in last year’s ruling for the commission that the court had already spoken on the tangled issue of campaign finance donations in Citizens United v. FEC

There, it held that limits on contributions to Super PACs are unconstitutional, as individual or independent expenditures could not create the appearance of corruption. Campaign contributions are amplifications of speech and therefore, restrictions on that political spending is a violation of the First Amendment, the court said. 

Sullivan said it was an issue for the high court to work out.

“The Court recognizes that there is some tension between SpeechNow and other Supreme Court decisions,” Sullivan wrote. “But that tension flows from inconsistencies between Citizens United and prior Supreme Court campaign finance decisions.” 

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