RNC v. FEC: free speech setback or SCOTUS opportunity?

A panel of three federal judges denied a request by the Republican National Committee to ease the restrictions on unregulated contributions to national political parties. The ruling is here.

This case turned on a procedural issue: the judges viewed themselves as bound by the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. The Court said that “in due course, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to clarify or refine this aspect of McConnell as the Court sees fit.”

After several cases loosening political speech regulations for independent groups, both major parties will remain at a competitive disadvantage as long as they remain restricted by archaic and arbitrary contribution limits.

Under the Supreme Court’s rationale since McConnell, national party committees should be able to raise and spend money for non-federal purposes like supporting local candidates, get-out-the-vote infrastructure, redistricting and litigation.

To say that the McConnell ruling applies to party committee activities beyond elections goes too far. These activities do not cause corruption or its appearance, and these efforts are necessary to build grassroots involvement. This spending will occur. The question is whether the government will mandate how it will be spent: through independent groups or, as another option, political parties.

SCOTUSBlog has a detailed analysis of the decision:

At issue in the case of Republican National Committee, et al., v. FEC (District Court docket 08-1953) was a provision in a 2002 federal campaign finance law that barred political parties from raising or spending donations of more than $30,400 from any individual donor, no matter how the party planned to spend it during a campaign for the presidency or for Congress. The ban also limited state and local party committees from using donations of more than $10,000 from any one donor during a year to pay for federal campaign activity.

Under federal campaign finance law, such a ruling by a three-judge District Court can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, bypassing a federal Circuit Court of Appeals. An internal GOP document, disclosed recently by Politico.com, indicated that party leaders expected the ruling to be issued soon, and that they planned to seek “expedited review” in the Supreme Court.  California professor Rick Hasen, an election law expert, has indicated that a lawyer has already been chosen to pursue that appeal—Washington attorney Theodore B. Olson. (Olson argued and won the Citizens United decision in the Supreme Court.)

Rick Hasen, proprietor of the Election Law Blog, has more.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.