RALEIGH, N.C. — For the second time, a federal appeals court panel has struck down a North Carolina law prohibiting issue-oriented political action committees from accepting individual contributions of more than $4,000.
In a second opinion issued yesterday by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a different three-judge panel upheld North Carolina's system of publicly financing elections for seats on the state's court of appeals and Supreme Court.
"This is a very conservative court and to have them legitimize public financing is significant," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonprofit group that advocates for clean elections.
Hall said the 3-0 ruling on public financing of campaigns — North Carolina Right to Life Committee Fund for Independent Political Expenditures v. Leake — offsets his disappointment in the first ruling, the latest in a series concerning a 1999 state law challenged by the North Carolina Right to Life Committee.
The law was designed to prevent political action committees from running independent campaigns on behalf of like-minded candidates, and in doing so avoid the state's limits on direct donations to candidates.
Along with the contribution limits, the 2-1 ruling in North Carolina Right to Life, Inc. v. Leake also found other parts of the law unconstitutional. Among them, a provision that allowed the State Board of Elections to use the context of a communication — such as a television ad — to determine if the PAC is explicitly supporting a candidate.
The law has wound its way through several courts, with a trial judge and the Richmond, Va.-based 4th Circuit previously agreeing the law should be struck down.In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to be reconsidered in light of the new rules imposed by the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law.
Hall said the ruling again frustrates the state's ability to hold fair elections. He suggested North Carolina lawmakers consider expanding the public-financing system the court approved, arguing that would help level the playing field for candidates who are running against those backed by outside groups.
"You can't restrict the flow of that dirty money. But that doesn't mean that you can't add clean money to match it," Hall said.