In May, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Federal Election Commission’s limit on individual campaign contributions following a challenge from the Libertarian National Committee after receiving a donation from a deceased member of the party. 

The initial complaint in the case of Libertarian National Committee v. FEC was  filed in January 2016 and the case has been working its way through the Washington, D.C. court system ever since 

At the core of the case is the $235,575 that LNC member Joseph Shaber bequeathed to the organization when he passed away in August 2014.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold law, limits individual donations to a political party to $33,400 per year — regardless of whether the donor is alive or not. In 2014, Congress amended the law to allow donors to contribute up to three times the $33,400 cap if the donations were only used for presidential nominating conventions, party headquarter buildings and election recounts. 

The LNC argued that a law telling the organization how to spend Shaber’s money was a violation of his First Amendment rights. They also argued that, because the Libertarian party is much smaller in size than the Republican and Democratic parties, the money could be better spent on efforts to spread the word about Libertarian candidates and the party itself. 

Ultimately, the court rejected those arguments, saying that modifying the regulations would set a dangerous precedent and further exacerbate the problems with big money in politics. 

Several think tanks and advocacy groups filed briefs in the case and, as you might imagine, reaction to the ruling was mixed. 

Siding with the Libertarian National Committee, the Institute for Free Speech said the FEC failed to demonstrate a link between accepting bequests and large-scale misuse of campaign funds.

“The court missed an opportunity to insist that the government marshal real evidence before burdening First Amendment rights. The FEC failed to prove any likelihood that uncoordinated and unrestricted bequests would lead to quid pro quo corruption,” said Institute for Free Speech Legal Director Allen Dickerson.

On the other side of the aisle, the Campaign Legal Center argued that changing regulations would hurt electoral integrity in the long run, even if it did provide a short-term win for the Libertarian National Committee.

“Today’s decision reaffirms that contribution limits are a vital preventative measure to protect voters against the worst forms of political corruption,” said Tara Malloy, senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, which argued in favor of upholding contribution limits. 

“Even if, as Judge Tatel writes,” Malloy continued, “the courts through some magical power could ferret out the innocent contributions from the nefarious, an appearance of corruption would remain. That’s why this decision is so important: unregulated contributions could inflict almost as much harm on public faith in the integrity of our elections as a clear exchange of money for favors.

The LNC could appeal the ruling but has not given any public indication that it plans to do so.

Photo Credit: Tracy Collins.