Since the federal court decisions in Citizens United and SpeechNow, courts, state campaign finance regulators, and state attorneys general have consistently found that Super PACs—entities that make only independent expenditures—are not bound by contribution limits. Yesterday, a federal court in New York bucked this trend—at least preliminarily.
For years the New York State Board of Elections has taken the position (pointing to 1994 Opinion # 3) that Super PACs may not accept contributions from corporations that exceed $5,000, and from individuals that exceed $150,000. The Hispanic Leadership Fund, a 501(c)(4) organization, and Freedom New York, a registered independent expenditure-only committee, brought a legal challenge to invalidate the contribution limits, as well as other parts of the Election Code. The district court’s ruling runs 30 pages, but its analysis of the contribution limit question is succinct: “Although Plaintiff HLF claims that its ‘major purpose’ is making independent expenditures, and Plaintiff FNY claims that it seeks this relief to make ‘only’ independent expenditures, the Court declines to accept these conclusory assertions without any factual record establishing their veracity.”
There are several notable points about this statement. First, this preliminary ruling is not a final adjudication on the merits. Second, the district court did not agree or disagree with the wealth of case law, such as SpeechNow, invalidating similar contribution limits as applied to Super PACs. Third, the ruling turned on an evidentiary issue—namely, whether the plaintiffs are in fact independent expenditure-only entities. On this point, at a glance it seems that Freedom New York’s affidavit states that it is a registered independent expenditure-only committee, but does not clearly describe the political activities in which it does and does not engage.
Going forward, there are two things to watch. As a procedural matter, the plaintiffs are entitled under federal law to appeal the denial of a preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Whether they do so may depend on the possibility of obtaining a ruling before the election passes. As to the merits of the district court action, look for the plaintiffs to file a motion for summary judgment and to create a robust factual record demonstrating that they are indeed independent expenditure-only committees.