Weeks After SCOTUS Campaign Finance Blow, Federal Judge Strikes Down NY Spending Limit

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“[T]oday’s reality is that the voices of ‘we the people’ are too often drowned out by the few who have great resources,” wrote U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty Thursday. But after many paragraphs spent lamenting the corruption inherent in limitless permissible contributions to political action committees, Crotty, a George W. Bush nominee, struck down parts of the New York law that limited them, conceding that he is bound to U.S. Supreme Court precedent, “no matter how misguided . . . [the Court] may think it to be.”

Citing not just Citizens United v. FEC, but its most recent extension, McCutcheon v. FEC, Crotty’s ruling strikes down a limit on contributions by wealthy individual donors to certain types of super PACs that aren’t officially coordinating with any candidate or party. That limit, like the one at issue in the McCutcheon case decided just weeks ago, was not on how much an individual can give to any given PAC, but how much total any individual can contribute in a given year, what is known as an aggregate limit, of $150,000.

Only concerns of corruption can limit campaign spending, considered free speech. And Crotty notes that the high court considers nothing short of direct bribery to be corruption, despite the corrupting influence of unlimited funds to PACs so associated with parties or candidates that they are effectively an extension of political campaigns.

The committee that launched the challenge, NY Progress and Protection PAC, said that the effect of the limit was to prevent any individual from giving more than $150,000 to the PAC. Like the limit at issue in McCutcheon, this affects only a few very wealthy donors. McCutcheon paved the way for schemes that amount to legalized money laundering, and this ruling is an early illustration of how many other provisions that seek to limit corruption may be struck down as a consequence.

The less predictable part of the ruling is the extreme resistance of Crotty, a George W. Bush appointee. In an opinion ultimately ceding to the Roberts Court’s five-justice majority, he wrote this:

One thing is certain: large political donations do not inspire confidence that the government in a representative democracy will do the right thing. As Justice Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC, “Corruption breaks the constitutionally necessary ‘chain of communication’ between the people and their representatives. . . . Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.” In other words, he who pays the piper calls the tune.