Supreme Court Keeps ‘Soft Money’ Out of Federal Elections

WASHINGTON (CN) – A dream of Louisiana Republicans to influence federal contests with soft-money donations from state and local parties crumpled Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state’s Republican Party Louisiana and several local Republican committees had initiated the challenge two years ago in Washington, D.C. Taking aim at the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the Republicans accused the Federal Elections Commission of trampling independent political speech and voter-registration activity, in violation of their First Amendment rights.

A three-judge panel with the U.S. District Court ruled against the challengers in November, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court summarily affirmed Monday.

Though the order is not accompanied by any opinion, it notes that Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch wanted to set the case for oral argument.

The outcome drew applause this morning from the Campaign Legal Center, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief this past February in support of the FEC.

“Voters are the winners of this decision to turn back unregulated soft money and to reaffirm the importance of effective party contribution limits,” said Tara Malloy, the center’s deputy executive director. “Without these soft money limits, political parties would again become vehicles through which big donors would attempt to buy influence over elected officials and their policy decisions.”

Another group that filed an amicus brief in the case is the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The Brennan Center has proposed targeted reforms to give party committees more fundraising flexibility, but it argued in its the brief that such recommendations should not be interpreted as questioning the current regime’s constitutionality.

“We are pleased to see they recognized what courts have held for decades, which is that party contribution limits prevent corruption and should be upheld,” Daniel Weiner, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement. “Updating campaign finance rules for political parties is a job for the democratic process to undertake, not the court.”

Last year’s ruling against the challengers from U.S. District Court noted that Congress had adopted the rules at issue to close a long-standing loophole in the existing campaign-finance law. Furthermore the challenge being raised had already been settled in other legal forums.

Under the law in question, political parties seeking to participate in federal elections are limited to relying on campaign contributions that comply with Federal Election Campaign Act with regard to their source and amounts.

These contributions are known as hard money, and contributions that falling outside FECA’s source and amount restrictions — in other words, funding from individuals in excess of the statutory ceilings, or funding from corporations in any amount— is known as soft. The latter cannot be used by political parties for federal elections.

Writing for a three-judge panel in November, U.S. Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan said the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act “took ‘national parties out of the soft-money business’” by “establishing a wholesale bar against national political parties’ raising or using nonfederal money.”

“Congress additionally understood that the soft-money ban for national parties would have little effect if state and local parties remained free to use nonfederal money for activities affecting federal elections — donors would then simply route soft-money donations to state and local parties instead of national parties,” the judge added.

Sitting on the panel by designation from the D.C. Circuit, Srinivasan then turned his focus to the history of litigation over the tightening of the campaign-finance rules. “The Supreme Court, in McConnell v. FEC, upheld those measures against a facial challenge under the First Amendment,” Srinivasan wrote.

“A prior three-judge district court, relying on McConnell, later sustained the provisions against an as-applied challenge, and the Supreme Court summarily affirmed that decision, [in] Republican Nat’l Comm. v. FEC,” he continued.

“We see no salient distinction between the First Amendment claims rejected in those cases and the challenge presented here,” Srinivasan concluded. “We therefore grant summary judgment in favor of the Federal Election Commission.’

Though one judge typically handles trial-level proceedings in U.S. District Court, federal law requires a three-judge panel to consider actions that challenge the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or of any statewide legislative body.

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