Cincinnati v. Kruse; Burris v. Russell
On November 16, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review two court cases that posed First Amendment challenges to limits on campaign contributions and expenditures in state and local elections. Both cases had been cast as potential challenges to Buckley v. Valeo, the landmark court case on the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act). The FEC was not a party to either suit.
Background of Buckley
The appellate courts' reasoning in the two cases was based in great part on Buckley, where the high court equated campaign spending with the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. While the Court found that a compelling government interest in preventing real or perceived corruption justified imposing restrictions on contributions, it concluded that this governmental interest was inadequate to sustain limitations on campaign expenditures.
Decision in Cincinnati
In the first case, Cincinnati v. Kruse, John Kruse, a candidate for a Cincinnati City Council seat, challenged a council ordinance that limited campaign expenditures for council elections to about $140,000. The city council argued that the rising cost of city council races had resulted in a rise in the influence of wealthy donors and the decline in the influence of small donors. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio at Cincinnati ruled in favor of Mr. Kruse, finding that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed that ruling on April 27, 1998. It reiterated the Supreme Court's view that restrictions that have the potential of limiting the First Amendment guarantee of political expression must be subjected to "exacting scrutiny" by the courts and that "the prevention of corruption or the appearance of corruption" is the only governmental interest that survives strict scrutiny and, as a result, justifies restrictions on campaign finance.
- Cincinnati failed to show that an expenditure limit would reduce corruption in the political process. The city had no direct evidence that imposing contribution limits alone could prevent quid pro quo corruption. The council did not adopt contribution limits until after it had passed the expenditure limits. Further, it based its views of corruption on perceived abuse of the Act on the federal level. The court found that such evidence was not enough. The three-judge panel stated that problems on the federal level are explained primarily by the exception allowing soft money contributions to party committees "and do not undermine the Supreme Court's conclusion that spending restrictions are not narrowly tailored to addressing the problem of the corrupting nature of money in politics."
The court also said the perception that the public is discouraged and cynical about the democratic process as a result of perceived corruption in campaign finance is not sufficient evidence for limiting campaign spending.
- Cincinnati failed to show that an expenditure limit would curb the rising cost of campaigns. The city, through an amicus brief filed by the Brennan Center, had argued that the Buckley Court had not considered what is now perceived to be "uncontrollable campaign spending" and the effects of such spending, such as the large amounts of time candidates must spend raising campaign funds. The court rejected this view, stating that the Supreme Court, in Buckley, concluded that "reducing the allegedly skyrocketing costs of political campaigns is not compelling or sufficient to justify restrictions on campaign spending."
- Cincinnati failed to prove that leveling the playing field among candidates is sufficient justification for an expenditure limit. The city had argued that the government had an interest in eliminating the advantage wealth plays in elections and the perceived disadvantage of poor and minority voters and candidates. The court found that restricting the free speech guarantees of some in order to enhance the voices of others would violate the First Amendment. It also said that the Buckley Court had rejected this argument. The Buckley Court explained that spending limits, rather than promoting financial equality among candidates, could instead protect incumbents and handicap well-known candidates.
Decision in Russell
In Burris v. Russell, Ron Russell challenged the Arkansas Ethics Commission after the state's voters approved a referendum that set contribution limits per election for district races at $100 per contributor and for statewide races (such as governor and state treasurer) at $300 per contributor. (The lowest contribution limit per contributor allowed under Buckley is $1,000.) The referendum also introduced an entity called the small-donor PAC. Individuals could contribute up to $25 to the PAC, and the PAC, in turn, could contribute up to $2,500 per candidate, per election. The initiative also created independent expenditure committees that could accept no more than $500 from any person annually. Finally, the initiative authorized local governments to set reasonable limits on the amount of campaign funds candidates for local offices could raise. Before this initiative, Arkansas voters had approved a measure that limited PAC contributions to $200 per year, down from $1,000.
This case was merged with Citizens for Clean Government v. Russell. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas rendered a split decision, upholding some of the contribution limits and ruling others unconstitutional. On June 4, 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth District struck down the individual and PAC contribution limits.
- Supporters of the initiative failed to prove a link between large contributions and undue influence or corruption of Arkansas officials. Proponents argued, for example, that financial contributions and support by the Tobacco Institute and other pro-tobacco sources caused a state legislator to champion a measure that would have prohibited local governments from regulating tobacco products. The court, however, showed that the pro-tobacco legislator in question had already stated his support for tobacco interests, had not changed his position on the issue as a result of the contributions and had not tried to conceal the tobacco industry contributions. The court also found that the $2,700 in tobacco money the legislator received was not enough to influence his vote on the measure. "We believe," the court stated, "that $1,000 is simply not a large enough sum of money to yield, of its own accord and without further evidence, a reasonable perception of undue influence or corruption."
This same pattern emerged with contributions to legislators from several lobbyists who represented various groups, including real estate interests. Again, none of the contributions individually exceeded $1,000.
The court found that the $100 and $300 contribution limits approved in the voter initiative were too low to allow meaningful participation in the political process. The court also held that the $200-per-year PAC contribution limit enacted before the voter initiative was "simply too low to allow for appropriately robust participation in protected political speech and association."
The court concluded that, "the limitations in question here are. dramatically lower than, and different in kind from, the limits approved in Buckley, and thus are unconstitutionally low."
- Proponents of small-donor PACs with higher contribution limits failed to show that differential treatment was warranted. The supporters argued that raising funds in $25 amounts would alleviate the potential for corruption. The court found, in fact, that the potential for corruption would move from the individual contributor to the small-donor PAC itself.
"If any contribution is likely to give rise to a reasonable perception of undue influence or corruption, it would be one from an entity permitted to contribute two-and-a-half times the amount that most others are allowed to contribute," the court stated. "The small-donor PAC provision is not, then, narrowly tailored to serve the compelling government interest of combating the reality or perception of undue influence or corruption."
Severability. The court found that the contribution limits were severable from the remainder of the voter initiative. It let stand the provisions for independent expenditure committees and rendered no decision on the instructions to local governments to establish reasonable limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures.
Source: FEC Record— January 1999. Kruse v. City of Cincinnati, 142 F.3d 907 (6th Cir. 1998), cert. denied 1998 WL 651027 (U.S.); Russell v. Burris, 146 F.3d 563 (8th Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 119 S. Ct. 1040 (1999).