In the first court hearing since the Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance regulations, a federal appeals court seemed poised Wednesday to strike down additional limits on money in politics.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia gave every indication it would make it easier for independent advocacy groups to raise money for use in campaigns for president and Congress.
Nonprofit groups on the left and right have brought lawsuits against limits on the amount of money they can collect from donors for political ads and other campaign spending.
Several judges said the outcome was compelled by the reasoning in the high court's decision last week freeing corporations to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates in federal elections.
The first words out of Chief Judge David Sentelle's mouth set the tone for the hourlong hearing.
"What can you add to what Justice Kennedy said?" Sentelle said, referring to Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in the case of Citizens United v. FEC.
The entire appeals court heard the appeal of FreeSpeech.org, a creation of the leader of the anti-tax group Club for Growth. Emily's List, a nonprofit that backs women Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, also has challenged the rules and won a ruling from a three-judge panel of the appeals court.
The Federal Election Commission enacted the rules at issue in 2005, after concerns were raised about the amount of unlimited "soft money" contributions used to fund attacks in the 2004 election.
The FEC said nonprofits would have to pay for political activities involving federal candidates using limited "hard money" contributions, those from individuals limited to giving up to $5,000 annually to a nonprofit that indicates it plans to use the money to support or oppose a federal candidate.
David Kolker, the FEC's associate general counsel, urged the judges to uphold the rules, noting that the nonprofits may spend as much as they want. "This case doesn't involve any spending limit," Kolker said.
Three of the judges already have voted to lift the contribution limits. Three others on the nine-judge court indicated in their questioning Wednesday they also would do so, saying the Supreme Court decision makes limits on political speech suspect.
"You don't seem to value the First Amendment very highly," Sentelle told Kolker.
The government lawyer replied, somewhat forlornly, that he was doing his job and defending federal election law.
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