Court Battles

Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a lawsuit from congressional Democrats challenging the legality of super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of political candidates.

The court did not explain its decision or indicate how many of the justices would have taken up the case. It takes four votes on the bench for the Supreme Court to grant a petition for review.

The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by a bipartisan trio in Congress: Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who died last year. They were joined by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and political activist; John Howe, a former Republican Minnesota state legislator; and Michael Wager, a two-time Democratic congressional candidate from Ohio.

Their case challenged an appeals court decision from 2010 that eliminated any financial contribution limits to political action committees that are not affiliated with a candidate or party. They argued that there is little sense in capping individual contributions to candidates while allowing independent groups to raise as much as they want in support of candidates.

“No legislature gave America a system of campaign finance that prohibits contributing more than $2,800 to a candidate because it is likely to corrupt or create an appearance of corruption, but allows contributing $28 million (or even $280 million) to a Super PAC dedicated to electing the same candidate,” the plaintiffs wrote in a filing to the Supreme Court in June.

That case, known as Speechnow v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC), along with the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, led to the rise of what are known today as super PACs.

The groups can spend and raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals on political campaigns. While they are legally prohibited from coordinating with political parties or candidates, super PACs are free to spend money to boost or hinder particular candidates.

The rise of those groups has allowed massive amounts of money to pour into federal elections. According to the website OpenSecrets, which tracks political spending, super PACs have reported raising $2.5 billion and spending $1.9 billion in the 2020 election cycle.

Lieu said on Monday that he was disappointed to see the Supreme Court pass up the question of whether super PACs should be able to take unlimited sums from donors.

“Allowing this decision to stand means individuals and corporations will continue to have the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections through Super PACs,” Lieu said in a statement. “It dilutes the voices of average Americans in favor of big-money interests. That said, the fight isn’t over – I will continue to look for legal and legislative solutions to address this serious issue.”

Tags Jeff Merkley Super PACs Supreme Court Ted Lieu Walter Jones

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