Court Upholds Federal Limit on Per-Election Campaign Contributions

Laura Holmes and Paul Jost—a married couple who appear to have done political fundraising in the past—challenged a federal law’s per-election ceilings on First Amendment grounds.  That law limits the amount that an individual can contribute to a candidate for a federal office (such as a presidential candidate).  The per-individual limit is $2600.  That same federal law sets per-election limits: individuals may contribute up to $2600 for a candidate’s primary race and an additional $2600 for the general.  (The number has gone up slightly since the law was challenged in 2014.  It’s now $2700.)

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Holmes and Jost wanted to forego making any contributions to a candidate’s primary race and “carry over” any applicable limit to the general race, thereby allowing them to give up to $5200 for a candidate’s general race.  The couple argued that the effect of what they wanted to do would be the same ($5200 for a given election cycle), and that the per-election limits unfairly limit their freedom of speech and freedom of association.

In a different case in 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the law’s aggregate limits, which prohibited individuals from contributing in a two-year period more than $117,000 in total for all candidates for federal offices and national political parties.  But that decision left the per-individual, per-election limits “undisturbed.”  (Interestingly, Holmes and Jost filed their lawsuit about three months after the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision.)

Late last year, the full 11-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the per-individual, per-election limits.  The Court relied on both the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that did not address the per-election limits, and the Supreme Court’s landmark campaign-finance decision from 1976 (Buckley v. Valeo) that upheld the same per-election structure in the law (albeit with lower dollar amounts in 1976 than today).  Holmes and Jost argued that if the whole purpose of the law is to prevent corruption, then a $5200 per-cycle limit accomplishes that goal, and thus that there is no need for the per-election limits.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that Congress had to impose some time limit on the contributions, and that Congress does not have to justify the time frame it’s chosen—just like the Supreme Court did not require Congress to justify the limits’ dollar amount in 1976.

It’s unclear whether Holmes and Jost will appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, or how the high court might rule if decided to take the case.  If it does, we’ll for sure keep you updated.

Case: Holmes v. FEC, No. 16-5194, (D.C. Cir. Nov. 28, 2017) (en banc) (opinion here)

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