Congratulations are due to friend-of-IJ Steve Hoersting, who, along with Dan Backer, Benjamin Barr, and the Center for Competitive Politics, just scored an early victory in Carey v. FEC, a challenge to federal campaign finance laws.
For those who aren’t well-versed in campaign finance law, the legal issue in Carey is somewhat arcane; it concerns whether so-called “Super PACs” can establish separate bank accounts that will raise limited funds for the purpose of making contributions directly to political candidates. But even though the legal issue is complicated, the principle Carey vindicates couldn’t be simpler: The Federal Election Commission cannot simply ignore court rulings against it.
The fact is, this case never should have had to go to court in the first place. The plaintiffs, retired Adm. James J. Carey and the National Defense Political Action Committee, wanted to engage in activity that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had already ruled was perfectly legal in a case called EMILY’s List v. FEC.
But things are never that simple when you’re dealing with the FEC, whose business, as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, “is to censor.” The FEC refused to give Adm. Carey and his group permission to operate, leaving the court as their only alternative. This is a perfect illustration of what the Supreme Court was talking about in Citizens United v. FEC when it noted that federal campaign finance laws “function as the equivalent of prior restraint by giving the FEC power analogous to licensing laws implemented in 16th- and 17th-century England, laws and governmental practices of the sort the First Amendment was drawn to prohibit.”
Lucky for Adm. Carey and NDPAC, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the D.C. District Court knocked this one out of the park. Judge Collyer thought the plaintiffs’ case was so strong that she granted them a preliminary injunction, which will prevent the government from enforcing the campaign finance laws against them and allow them to speak freely in the 2012 election while the case goes forward.
Judge Collyer’s ruling is notable not just for reaching the correct result, but because it takes the FEC to task for its approach both to regulation and litigation. Her ruling describes the FEC’s unconvincing attempt to distinguish the EMILY’s List case as “plain wrong,” and is particularly critical of the FEC’s “questioning of Plaintiffs’ intentions,” which she concludes “does not well serve the agency or its argument.”
All in all, a great way to kick off the case, which will hopefully move quickly to a final ruling on the merits. Congratulations again to all involved for their hard work.
The full text of the Carey opinion is available here (.pdf).