On Friday, November 4, 2016, Free Speech For People, on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress and 2016 congressional candidates, filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission to abolish super PACs. The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Washington D.C., seeks the reversal of the 2010 federal appeals court ruling in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, which unleashed super PAC spending in US elections.
Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA-33), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Representative Walter Jones (R-NC-3) serve as the lead plaintiffs in the litigation. They each issued the following statements in connection with today’s filing:
Senator Jeff Merkley
“When huge corporations and the super-wealthy can drown out the voices of ordinary Americans, we’ve lost President Lincoln’s vision of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. 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.”
Congressman Ted Lieu
“I am honored to join my colleagues and Free Speech For People as one of the lead plaintiffs in a legal challenge seeking to compel the Federal Election Commission to enforce federal contribution limits on super PACs. It is time to get big money out of politics. Since the SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission decision, the amount of money being spent on our elections has exploded, adding fuel to the public perception of election corruption. Americans across the political spectrum want to see their elected officials responsive to them instead of big money donors. The idea that one person or one corporation can essentially buy an election is a threat to our democracy. Progress happens when people stand up and demand a change. The vast majority of the American people want to see limits to campaign contributions. It is time we address these inequities and advocate for changes to our campaign finance system.”
Congressman Walter Jones
“Since the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org decisions in 2010, I have witnessed the influence of money in politics become more and more pervasive. I see its influence shape policy in Washington to the detriment of the American people all the time. This effort is an important step towards returning the government to the people, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
The March 2010 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in SpeechNow.org v. FEC opened the door to super PACs by holding that the federal law limiting contributions to political committees to $5,000 per person each year did not apply to a political committee that promised to make only “independent expenditures.” Our lawsuit alleges that super PACs have now become vehicles for wealthy donors to evade campaign contribution limits designed to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. The US Supreme Court has yet to review this question.
As our lawsuit cites, more than forty percent of federal super PAC contributions, as of April 2016, had come from just 50 funders and their families. By late October 2016, federal super PACs had reported total receipts of more than $1.1 billion and total expenditures of more than $799 million.
The filing of this lawsuit today follows the filing of a complaint before the FEC on July 7, 2016, which named ten super PACs as respondents, including the Democratic and Republican super PACs for Senate and House candidates. The FEC complaint alleged that the super PACs “have knowingly accepted and continue to knowingly accept contributions that exceed the $5,000 per contributor limit, in some cases by over a hundredfold.” The $5,000 per contributor limit has remained a part of the federal campaign finance statute despite the SpeechNow ruling. The FEC complaint sought to enforce the $5,000 contribution limit, thereby abolishing super PACs in US elections.
Federal law allows for complainants to sue the FEC if the agency has not acted on their complaint within 120 days of its filing. To date, the FEC has taken no action on the complaint.
The lawsuit states, “[t]he availability of quid pro quo transactions through super PAC contributions creates a potential for corruption, and an appearance of corruption that is confirmed by the public. For this reason, enforcing the contribution limits…against super PACs is justified by the interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.”
Free Speech For People, a national non-profit public interest organization founded on the day of the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, serves as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, along with the Campaign for Accountability; Brad C. Deutsch and the law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer; and Stephen A. Weisbrod and the law firm of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley. Mr. Deutsch served as lead counsel to the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, and previously served for eight years as Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Advisor to Commissioner Steven T. Walther at the Federal Election Commission. The legal team also includes a bipartisan group of distinguished scholars and practitioners in the law of the First Amendment, corruption, and government ethics: Professor Laurence Tribe (Harvard Law School); Professor Albert Alschuler (Univ. of Chicago Law School, emeritus); Ambassador (ret.) Norman Eisen (former chief ethics counsel to President Barack Obama); and Professor Richard Painter (Univ. of Minnesota Law School, and former chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush).
Click here to download a copy of our full press release on today’s filing.
Click here to download a copy of our complaint filed in federal court today.
Click here for today’s Washington Post article on this filing.