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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
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Election-Donor Limits Pass Muster in D.C. Federal Court

(CN) - Donors can't dodge election donation limits by doubling their contributions to general election candidates to avoid "wasting" their money on primary campaigns, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Laura Holmes and Paul Jost, a married couple living in Miami, made election contributions to Congressional candidates in San Diego and Iowa, respectively. But their donations came after the primary elections, and they did not give to the candidates during the primary season.

Holmes and Jost believe that they should be allowed to donate another $2,600 - the current federal per candidate, per election limit - to their two candidates since they missed doing so for the primary elections. They claimed the Federal Election Commission's contribution limit is unconstitutional, since it violates their free speech rights by creating an artificial distinction between primary and general elections with no real purpose.

The couple also claimed that the limit means that they are treated differently than other donors who already gave the $2,600 limit to primary candidates and can do so again during the general election cycle. They lobbied the D.C. Circuit to void the campaign contribution limits in time for them to give the full $5,200 to their chosen candidates ahead of the November elections.

But U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said Monday that the Supreme Court has long upheld campaign finance restrictions - and their seeming infringements on the right of association - since they prevent corrupt elections, and denied the couple's bid for an injunction.

"Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim because FEC's contribution limit of $2,600 per election per candidate only marginally restricts plaintiffs' freedom of association and is properly designed to reduce corruption or the appearance of corruption," Collyer wrote. "To start, plaintiffs have not been prevented from supporting their preferred candidates with the full $5,200 contribution authorized by law. They could have contributed $2,600 to any candidate before the primaries, but chose not to do so because of their belief that the money would be 'wasted in an intraparty squabble' as opposed to being used to fight the incumbent in the general election. That plaintiffs elected not to exercise their right of free expression before the primary election does not render the law unconstitutional as applied."

As to the couple's equal protection claims, Collyer noted that campaign contribution limits apply "equally to every contributor."

"Plaintiffs have not been treated differently than any other contributor because the statute here 'applies the same limitations on contributions to all candidates regardless of their present occupations, ideological views, or party affiliations,'" the judge wrote, citing the Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo. "Plaintiffs consistently describe the law as asymmetrical, citing cases in which the Supreme Court struck down state laws imposing varying contribution limits on different groups of contributors. These cases are inapposite. While plaintiffs may be prevented from contributing $5,200 to their chosen candidates after their primary elections, plaintiffs were only restricted to the exact same extent as any other individuals wishing to contribute more than $2,600 per election."

Collyer added: "No individual has the power to give $5,200 solely for use in the general election. It may be that a contributor to an unopposed incumbent will contribute $2,600 before the primary election in anticipation that it will all be used in the general election. How the funds are actually spent, of course, is wholly out of the contributor's control. An unopposed candidate may well decide to campaign before the primary in order to get a head start on the general election campaign - or not, depending on the candidate's calculus of her reelection chances. In either case, contributors have not been treated differently. Plaintiffs' argument that the law works asymmetric and discriminatory effects by favoring one category of candidates over another is therefore misplaced. It is the candidate who faces no primary challenger - whether an incumbent or a first-time candidate - who might be advantaged by saving campaign costs for the primary. Accordingly, even if a candidate in a primary must spend money to advertise and win, it does not follow that the rights of his contributors have been treated unequally."

The judge rejected the couple's claim that they are being irreparably harmed by donation limits, noting again that the laws have been in place for decades and approved by the Supreme Court.

"Plaintiffs' attempt to locate a problem of constitutional proportions in the per-election contribution limit would upset settled expectations immediately before the vote itself," Collyer concluded.

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