Libertarian Challenge to Contribution Limits Advances

By Kenneth P. Doyle

A constitutional challenge to restrictions on campaign contributions to a political party has been given a go-ahead by a federal judge in Washington, D.C. ( Libertarian Nat’l Comm. v. Federal Election Commission, D.D.C., No. 16-cv-121, memorandum opinion 1/3/17).The Libertarian Party’s national committee challenged restrictions imposed by Congress in 2014 when it passed a law sharply increasing the amount of money a single contributor can give to a party but limiting the uses of that increased money. The controversial 2014 law -- tacked onto an approriations bill funding the federal government -- boosted the total contribution a party committee can receive to more than $300,000 annually but required that most of the money be used to pay only for three purposes: party conventions, legal costs and party headquarters.

The Libertarian National Committee (LNC) challenged these restrictions, which are enforced by the Federal Election Commission, in a lawsuit filed in January 2016. The Jan. 3 ruling by Beryl Howell, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, allows the case to be heard on the merits by the federal appeals court in Washington under special procedures for considering campaign finance challenges.

Large Bequest to Party

Howell’s ruling rejected a motion to dismiss the case filed by FEC lawyers. The judge said that the LNC had legal standing to challenge restrictions on how it could spend a large contribution bequested by a party supporter who died in 2014. The supporter, Joseph Shaber, left the party committee $235,575.

The FEC argued that the LNC could accept the full amount and so had no reason to pursue a lawsuit. The party committee argued, however, that much of the money would be restricted to specific purposes not directly related to supporting Libertarian candidates.

The LNC said that the restrictions on its use of contributions violated the First Amendment. Judge Howell said that the First Amendment was implicated and the issue should be decided by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sitting en banc.

Earlier Case Dismissed

The Libertarian Party’s current challenge to FEC limits on a bequest of campaign money continues a long-running effort. An earlier challenge was dismissed as moot in 2014 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. That court said it took so long for the case to be litigated that all the bequeathed money involved had already been paid in annual installments that complied with party contribution limits, by the time the case was ready to be decided.

The latest suit, filed by attorney Alan Gura of Gura & Possessky in Alexandria, Va., followed a new bequest by Libertarian Party supporter Shaber. The contributor placed no restrictions on use of the money, but the LNC said it couldn’t access the money “for the purposes that would best help it communicate with voters, elect its candidates, and achieve its political objectives.”

The current lawsuit contends that passage of the 2014 law increasing party contribution limits bolstered arguments that bequests to a political party cannot be limited under the Constitution. The restrictions on use of the increased contributions allowed by the law are a “content-based restriction on a national party’s speech,” the lawsuit argued. “A party can only spend $33,400 of a donor’s money on general political speech, but nearly ten times that amount on Government-favored purposes,” it said.

In its previous lawsuit involving a bequest to the party committee, the LNC had made a different argument, saying that deceased individuals cannot pose a threat of corruption from beyond the grave and thus bequests to the party shouldn’t be limited at all. The FEC has ruled consistently, however, that bequests are governed by the same contribution limits set for living contributors because a contributor might promise to leave a party huge sums in a will in order to gain unfair access or influence while still alive.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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