In what could be a pivotal ruling, a district court decision on Thursday has set the stage for a review of the case that spawned the recent era of lavish and secretive spending by big-money super PACs in local and national campaigns.
In response, proponents of campaign finance reform expressed confidence that they are one step closer to getting a major source of corporate dark money out of U.S. elections.
“Super PACs weren’t created by Congress, or the U.S. Supreme Court,” Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People, said in a statement. “They were created by a lower court decision, based on faulty assumptions, that has never been reviewed or revisited.”
In the 2010 case SpeechNow.org v. FEC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit applied the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision to rule that limits on the amount individuals could contribute to “independent expenditure-only” groups violated the First Amendment.
The court’s ruling, according to critics, unleashed a flood of corporate money into the U.S. political system that further corrupted the democratic process and gave big business even more power over election results.
“We need to put ‘We the People’ back in charge, and that starts by closing the gaping super PAC loophole that has allowed dark money to overwhelm our elections,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a plaintiff in Lieu v. FEC, which seeks to overturn the SpeechNow decision. The lawsuit was initially filed by Free Speech for People in 2016 on behalf of Merkley, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), and the late Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.).
In Thursday’s decision, the federal district court said its hands are tied by SpeechNow until the 2010 ruling is overturned. According to Free Speech for People, the case is now set to be reviewed for the first time by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“For nearly a decade, the SpeechNow ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has allowed big money donors to evade federal campaign contribution limits and corrupt even further our political process,” said John Bonifaz, co-Founder and president of Free Speech For People. “The real-world experience of this ruling and the threat that super PACs pose to our democracy must now be reviewed by the D.C. Circuit. We look forward to advancing this case.”