WASHINGTON — In the first court hearing since the Supreme Court ruling on campaign-finance regulations, a federal appeals court seemed poised yesterday to strike down additional limits on money in politics.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia gave every indication it would make it easier for independent advocacy groups to raise money for use in campaigns for president and Congress.
Nonprofit groups on the left and right have brought lawsuits against limits on the amount of money they can collect from donors for political ads and other campaign spending.
Several judges, all members of the D.C. Circuit's conservative bloc, said the outcome was compelled by the reasoning in the high court's decision last week freeing corporations to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates in federal elections.
The first words out of Chief Judge David Sentelle's mouth set the tone for yesterday’s hour-long hearing.
"What can you add to what Justice Kennedy said?" Sentelle asked, referring to Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC. Sentelle was appointed to the appeals court by President Ronald Reagan.
The entire appeals court heard the appeal of SpeechNow.org, a creation of the leader of the anti-tax group Club for Growth. EMILY's List, a nonprofit that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, also has challenged the rules and won a ruling last September from a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit.
The Federal Election Commission enacted the rules at issue in 2005, after concerns were raised about the amount of unlimited "soft money" contributions used to fund attacks in the 2004 election.
The FEC said nonprofits would have to pay for political activities involving federal candidates using limited "hard money" contributions. Individuals may give no more than $5,000 annually in such contributions to a nonprofit that indicates it plans to use the money to support or oppose a federal candidate.
David Kolker, the FEC's associate general counsel, urged the judges to uphold the rules, noting that the nonprofits may spend as much as they want. "This case doesn't involve any spending limit," he said.
Three of the judges already have voted to lift the contribution limits. Three others on the nine-judge court indicated in their questioning yesterday that they also would do so, saying last week’s Supreme Court decision makes limits on political speech suspect.
"You don't seem to value the First Amendment very highly," Sentelle told Kolker.
The government lawyer replied, somewhat forlornly, that he was doing his job and defending federal election law.
The judges gave no indication when they would issue a decision.
Requirements that nonprofits disclose their donors and their spending also are being challenged, but seemed to have a better chance of surviving. The Supreme Court upheld disclosure rules last week.
Meanwhile, the James Madison Center for Free Speech, a conservative legal foundation, asked the FEC to throw out its rules that restrict corporate and union spending on politics, saying the step is needed to implement last week's Supreme Court decision.
The group said the FEC should act quickly to give a green light to corporations and unions to begin spending from their treasuries to influence this year's congressional elections.