WASHINGTON (CN) — Upholding contribution ceilings in federal election law, the en banc D.C. Circuit rejected claims Tuesday from Florida voters who wanted to forgo campaign donations in the primary season to double up in the general election.
In 2014, the election year that prompted the underlying challenge, federal base limits prevented any individual from contributing more than $2,600 to a candidate in each election for which the candidate was competing.
Primary and general elections are considered separate elections, however, so the same donor could contribute $2,600 to the same candidate for each contest.
Laura Holmes and Paul Jost, a married couple living in Florida, challenged the scheme as an unconstitutional bifurcation of what they construed as an overall $5,200 cap.
Neither Holmes nor Jost made any contributions to the candidates they supported in the primary season, but they contributed $2,600 apiece to the candidates for the general election. Their complaint casts as artificial the ceilings preventing them from contributing more.
Writing for the 11-judge court on Tuesday, U.S. Circuit Jusge Sri Srinivasan said the challenge “falls short at every step.”
“We see no basis to upset Congress’s choice of a per-election ceiling over a per-cycle ceiling,” Srinivasan added.
Allen Dickerson, an attorney for Holmes and Jost with the Institute for Free Speech, called the ruling a disappointment and said they might appeal.
"The FEC has never shown that restricting campaign contributions on the basis of the time of year they are given prevents corruption," said Dickerson, who is legal director of the institute. "Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals deferred to Congress, and left intact a situation that is illogical and unfair to both candidates and donors."
Srinivasan wrote Tuesday that Holmes and Jost demonstrated a “fundamentally mistaken” understanding of the Federal Election Campaign Act.
“Contrary to plaintiffs’ account of FECA, there is no $5,200 base contribution ceiling split between the primary and general elections,” the 26-page opinion continues.
Srinivasan conceded that combined contributions to a candidate in the primary and general elections would equal $5,200, but “the potential implications of a runoff election” underscore the point that there is no $5,200 base limit.
“That is hardly an unpredictable occurrence,” Srinivasan wrote. “In the 2014 election cycle alone, 15 congressional races included at least one runoff election, and in the decade culminating in the 2014 cycle, 95 congressional races involved a runoff election.”
FECA thus allowed an individual to contribute $7,800 to a candidate over the course of such an election cycle.
Srinivasan said the challengers failed to show that the balance Congress struck on contribution limits is unconstitutional.
“If $5,200 in contributions across both elections raises no undue prospect of corruption, plaintiffs ask,” according to the ruling, “then what could be the reason to disallow the same overall contribution across the elections merely because it is paid in the general election alone?
“Congress had a perfectly understandable reason,” the ruling continues. “Congress, needing to select some timeframe in order to establish an effective base contribution limit, chose a per-election structure and reasonably defined the primary and general elections as separate events for purposes of the $2,600 ceiling.”
Srinivasan wrote later that the court knows “of no reason to compel adoption of a per-cycle ceiling instead of a per-election one (or vice versa).”
“After all, a contribution limit, whether structured as a per-election or per-cycle ceiling, generally addresses the appearance and actuality of corruption from large campaign donations,” the ruling continues.
The Campaign Legal Center, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, applauded the court’s decision.
“The court was right to uphold contribution limits,” Tara Malloy, senior director of appellate litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, said in an email. “Reasonable limits in election spending are necessary so government doesn’t just respond to wealthy donors and special interests when it should be responding to all Americans.”
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