Plaintiffs Laura Holmes and Paul Jost claim that the per-election limits on individual contributions to candidates violate the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit declined to certify the constitutional questions to the en banc court of appeals and granted the FEC's motion for summary judgment. On April 26, 2016, the court of appeals affirmed the district court's decision not to certify the Fifth Amendment question, but reversed the court's decision not to certify the First Amendment question and to grant summary judgment to the Commission on plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims. The court of appeals remanded the case to the district court to certify the First Amendment question.
The Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) allows individuals to contribute “to any candidate and his authorized political committees with respect to any election for Federal office.” The individual contribution limits apply on a per-candidate, per-election basis, with a separate limit for each election in which the candidate participates (e.g., primary, general, runoff, etc.). See 52 U.S.C. §§ 30116(a)(1)(A) and 30101(1).
Rather than making separate primary and general election contributions, each plaintiff wanted to combine the $2,600 limit for the primary election with the $2,600 limit for the general election in order to contribute $5,200 to their preferred candidate's general election campaign. (At the time of the complaint, the per-candidate, per-election limit was $2,600. It has since increased to $2,700 per candidate, per election.) The plaintiffs claim that the Act’s per-election contribution limit violates their First and Fifth Amendment rights by "artificially bifurcating" their contributions between the primary and general elections with no anti-corruption purpose and by limiting the amounts they can contribute to the general election campaigns of their preferred candidates.
The district court rejected the plaintiffs' arguments described above as a “false construct” and frivolous. It found their Constitutional claims were matters of settled law and declined to certify the questions to the en banc court of appeals. The court also granted the Commission's motion for summary judgment. The plaintiffs appealed the court's decision not to certify their constitutional questions.
Court of Appeals Decision
The court of appeals acknowledged the low bar to certification, and that a district court may refuse to certify claims that are "wholly insubstantial," "obviously frivolous," and "obviously without merit." However, the court concluded that the plaintiffs’ First Amendment challenge was not "obviously frivolous" or "without merit." The court further stated, “We do not think a district court may decline to certify a constitutional question simply because the plaintiff is arguing against Supreme Court precedent so long as the plaintiff mounts a non-frivolous argument in favor of overturning that precedent. That the plaintiff will be fighting a losing battle in the lower courts does not necessarily make the question 'wholly insubstantial,' 'obviously frivolous,' or 'obviously without merit'." The court also disagreed with the lower court's analysis of Supreme Court precedent, finding that Buckley v. Valeo did not specifically address plaintiffs' First Amendment challenge. The court also concluded that certifying the First Amendment question fulfills the Act's purpose of accelerating potential Supreme Court review.
The plaintiffs also challenged the per-election contribution limits as unconstitutionally depriving them of their Fifth Amendment right to equal protection by favoring contributors to incumbent candidates who do not face substantial primary opposition. While the lower court declined to certify the claim on the basis that the issue is "settled law," the court of appeals reached the same result under different reasoning. The certification procedure under 52 U.S.C § 30110 applies only to constitutional challenges to the Act. In this case, the court found the Fifth Amendment claim was "so clearly a challenge to [Commission] regulations, and therefore outside the scope of §30110," that it failed to raise a substantial federal question for jurisdictional purposes.
The court affirmed the district court's decision not to certify the Fifth Amendment question, but reversed the court's decision not to certify the First Amendment question and to grant summary judgment to the Commission on that claim. The court remanded the case to the district court to certify the First Amendment question to the court of appeals en banc.
- Holmes, et al. v. FEC litigation page