Lieu v. Federal Election Commission

Rep. Ted LieuRep. Walter Jones (R-NC)Sen. Jeff Merkley

The case that could end super PACs

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 v. FEC, which created super PACs.

The plaintiffs are a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress and 2016 congressional candidates led by Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA-33), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and the late Representative Walter Jones (R-NC-3).

Now that the case has completed district court proceedings, the federal appeals court will soon have the opportunity to review its 2010 ruling which created super PACs. Read our press release on this development.

Key facts

Caption Lieu v. Federal Election Commission
Court U.S. Court for the District of Columbia Circuit
Docket No. 19-5072
Status In midst of appeal to D.C. Circuit
Plaintiffs Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA-33), the late Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC-3), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), State Sen. (ret.) John Howe, Zephyr Teachout, Michael Wager
Defendant Federal Election Commission



Contrary to a common misunderstanding, super PACs were not created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but by a later decision of the intermediate federal court of appeals, v. FECIn SpeechNow, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that the federal law limiting contributions to political action committees to $5,000 per person per year did not apply to political committees that promised to make only “independent expenditures.” As explained by scholars and experts in political corruption and constitutional law, the SpeechNow ruling was legally erroneous at the time under Supreme Court precedent (including Citizens United).

Unfortunately, then-Attorney General Eric Holder decided not to appeal SpeechNow to the Supreme Court, on the (clearly mistaken in retrospect) theory that the SpeechNow decision would “affect only a small subset of federally regulated contributions.” This prediction, like the court’s speculation that contributions to super PACs could not lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption, has proven incorrect with time. To this day, the Supreme Court has not reviewed the question. As a result, super PACs have become one of the primary vehicles for wealthy donors to evade campaign contribution limits designed to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. Meanwhile,  Chief Justice Roberts has given signals that might suggest he would be willing to sustain limits on contributions to super PACs even within the framework of Citizens United.

Lieu v. Federal Election Commission challenges the FEC’s failure to enforce the existing, still-on-the-books federal $5,000 contribution limit against six and seven-figure contributions to super PACs associated with both major political parties. See also our legislative efforts to end super PACs.

Major case developments

In the news

  • Washington Post, Legal team seeking to undo super PACs files suit to push FEC to act (Nov. 4, 2016)
  • Huffington PostThis could be the beginning of the end for super PACs (July 8, 2016)
  • Washington PostCan super PACs be put back in the box? (July 6, 2016)
  • NewsweekWho blew the lid off campaign contributions? (Dec. 10, 2015) (Albert Alschuler and Laurence Tribe)
  • U.S. NewsThe beginning of the end of the super PAC? (Nov. 4, 2015) (Ron Fein)


Legal team

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 lead counsel for the plaintiffs, along with Malcolm Seymour, Brad Deutsch, Benjamin Lambiotte, and Andrew Goodman of the law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer.  The legal team also includes a bipartisan group of distinguished scholars and practitioners in the law of the First Amendment, corruption, and government ethics, including: Professor Laurence Tribe (Harvard Law School); Professor Albert Alschuler (Univ. of Chicago Law School, emeritus); and Professor Richard Painter (Univ. of Minnesota Law School, and former chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush). In the district court, Stephen A. Weisbrod and the law firm of Weisbrod Matteis & Copley served as local counsel.

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