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Rulings split on campaign fundraising

A three-judge panel rejects a GOP challenge to limits on direct contributions to candidates or political parties. A D.C. appeals court rules that independent groups may spend as much as they wish.

March 27, 2010|By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington — Federal judges handed down split verdicts on Friday in two separate decisions on campaign fundraising, ruling that the Republican National Committee and other political parties may not seek unlimited contributions from wealthy donors, but independent groups may do so.

The rulings came in a pair of cases testing the legal limits on money in politics.

The RNC and several conservative groups have been filing suits in recent years challenging money limits on free-speech grounds, confident the Supreme Court agrees with their view.

They won a major victory in January when the high court, in a 5-4 decision, freed corporate and independent groups to spend as much as they wished on their own to elect or defeat candidates.

But that ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission did not deal with the limits on how much money could be contributed directly to candidates or political parties. The RNC and the California Republican Party had challenged those limits in a separate suit.

A special three-judge panel rejected the challenge Friday, saying such a decision must come from the Supreme Court. The Democratic National Committee had joined the case on the side of the FEC.

During the 1990s, both the Democratic and Republican parties raised huge amounts from wealthy donors, corporations and unions. They did so by claiming they were using the money to build the party, not to elect their candidates.

The McCain-Feingold Act in 2002 closed this "soft money" loophole and said parties may not receive more than $30,400 per year from individuals. State parties had similar but lower limits.

Fred Wertheimer, a longtime champion of the campaign funding laws, took comfort from the ruling in the RNC case.

He called it "a major victory in the battle to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption of political parties and their federal candidates through unlimited campaign contributions."

Though Friday's ruling was a setback for the RNC, it may be only temporary. Party leaders have said their aim was to bring the issue before the Supreme Court.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele said the Republicans would appeal to the high court. "Today's decision underscores the need to restore political parties' 1st Amendment rights and balance to the political process," he said.

In the other case decided Friday, the full U.S. appeals court in Washington said, an independent political group, had a right to raise and spend as much as it wished to endorse or oppose candidates.

In a 9-0 ruling, the judges said the Supreme Court's ruling in January made it clear that independent political spending could not be restricted by law. However, the judges agreed that the group can be required to disclose its donors.

"The public has an interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate and who is funding that speech," said Chief Judge David Sentelle.

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