Plaintiffs Laura Holmes and Paul Jost claimed that the per-election limits on individual contributions to candidates violated their First and Fifth Amendment rights and asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to certify constitutional questions to the en banc Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. On April 20, 2015, the district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion and awarded judgment to the Commission.
The Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) allows individuals to contribute “to any [federal] candidate and his authorized political committees with respect to any election for Federal office,” with the individual contribution limits applying on a per-candidate, per-election basis. “Election” is defined to include, among other things, a general or primary election. See 52 U.S.C. §§ 30116(a)(1)(A) and 30101(1).
The plaintiffs, who are married, did not want to make contributions to their preferred candidates’ primary election campaigns, but each wanted to combine their primary and general election contribution limits to make contributions of $5,200 to their preferred candidates’ general election campaigns. (At the time of the complaint, the per-candidate, per-election limit was $2,600.)
Analysis and court decision
In their complaint, the plaintiffs claimed that the Act’s per-election contribution limit violates the First and Fifth Amendments, as applied to them, by limiting the amounts they can contribute to the general election campaigns of their preferred candidates. According to the plaintiffs, “artificially bifurcating” a $5,200 election cycle limit with separate limits for primary and general elections unconstitutionally burdens their First Amendment right of association and furthers no compelling anti-corruption governmental interest.
The court rejected these arguments citing, in part, the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo that upheld the limits on financial contributions to candidates. The court first rejected as a “false construct” the plaintiffs’ description of the per-election structure as “bifurcated.” “The FECA does not dictate a maximum contribution limit of $5,200 that may be split between the primary and general elections, [rather, it] sets a per-election base limit of $2,600: an individual may contribute $2,600 to one candidate for each “election,” as defined, in which [the candidate] participates.” The court rejected the plaintiff’s First Amendment claim, concluding that it raised a settled legal question and was a veiled attack on the contribution limits set by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. “By seeking to combine the permissible contribution amounts [and apply them to one election]… Plaintiffs are effectively challenging Congress’s decision to set a base dollar limit for individual per-election contributions to federal candidates — a decision that is contemplated and approved by Buckley.”
The plaintiffs also alleged that the per-election contribution limits unconstitutionally deprive them of their Fifth Amendment right to equal protection of the law by artificially favoring contributors to incumbent candidates who do not face substantial primary opposition. However, the court found the fact that candidates unopposed in the primaries may be able to utilize more of their primary contributions for the general election results from the transfer rules under 11 CFR 110.3(c)(3) (which was not challenged by the plaintiffs) and was not a result of the Act.
The court declined to certify any constitutional questions to the en banc Court of Appeals and granted the FEC’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal on April 24, 2015.