RICHMOND, Va. A North Carolina law prohibiting issue-oriented political action committees from accepting individual contributions of more than $4,000 is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle of Raleigh.
The law was challenged by the North Carolina Right to Life Committee.
The ruling will allow individuals to make unlimited donations to PACs that run independent campaigns on behalf of like-minded state candidates, thus avoiding contribution limits directly to the candidate's campaign.
Lawyers for the state "failed to proffer sufficiently convincing evidence which demonstrates that there is a danger of corruption due to the presence of unchecked contributions" to issue-advocacy PACS, the appeals court ruled.
The court also upheld Boyle's ruling that North Carolina had too broadly defined a political committee. The definition includes groups running ads that a "reasonable person" would conclude advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, even if the wording is not explicit.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that "any inquiry into whether a communication supports or opposes the election of a particular candidate must focus only on the actual words of advocacy," the appeals court said.
The court panel also struck down North Carolina's presumption that a PAC exists primarily to support or oppose a candidate if it contributes or spends more than $3,000 during an election cycle.
"The fact that an entity spends over $3,000 is only evidence of major purpose," the panel said. "The burden of proving that an organization has as its major purpose the support or defeat of a candidate remains with the state."
Boyle had upheld the "major purpose" provision, which the appeals court said was easy for the state to apply. "Administrative convenience, however, does not present a sufficient justification for infringing First Amendment freedoms," the court said.