Groups sue to put super PAC question on 2024 state ballot

October 24, 2022 GMT

BOSTON (AP) — Groups pushing for a 2024 ballot question aimed at reining in the spending power of super PACs filed two lawsuits in Massachusetts on Monday that target a decision by the state attorney general’s office to block the question on the grounds that it would infringe on First Amendment rights.

The lawsuits, filed with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, argue in favor of the proposed question, which would change state law to limit contributions by individuals to independent expenditure political action committees — or super PACs — to $5,000.

Currently, super PACs are able to raise and spend unlimited funds from individuals as long as they don’t directly coordinate with a candidate’s campaign.

The office of Attorney General Maura Healey tossed out the language of the proposed ballot question last month, ruling that it would violate free speech protections.

Supporters of the question however, argue that super PACs can create the appearance of corruption and that the Supreme Court has allowed regulation of corruption.

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The group Free Speech For People, which filed one of the lawsuits, argued that the initiative would address both “quid pro quo” corruption and the appearance of corruption created by contributions to super PACs.

“A wealthy donor could tell a politician, ‘If you do X, I’ll write a huge check to your super PAC,’” said Courtney Hostetler, senior counsel for Free Speech For People.

“Voters may not know what was spoken behind closed doors, but they recognize the appearance of quid pro quo corruption,” she added. “Sensible dollar limits on contributions to these fundraising entities will dramatically reduce quid pro quo corruption and its appearance.”

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and founder of Equal Citizens, said the arguments in favor of limiting super PAC contributions could resonate with some on the nation’s highest court. The group has filed the second lawsuit.

Conservative justices on the Supreme Court who believe that “originalism” requires the reversal of Roe v. Wade, he said, should apply that principle consistently.

“If you’re an originalist about the First Amendment, there’s no doubt that a Legislature or the people of Massachusetts have the right to regulate super PACs,” he said. “It obviously has to get to the Supreme Court to be resolved.”

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In a letter dated Sept. 7 explaining the decision to block the question, Anne Sterman, deputy chief of the state attorney general’s government bureau, said courts across the country have found that limits on contributions to independent expenditure PACs violate free speech protections.

She wrote that although Massachusetts courts have not specifically weighed in on the constitutionality of laws limiting campaign contributions made by an individual to a political committee or entity that makes independent expenditures, “it is clear that this proposed law would violate the free speech rights afforded by the state constitution.”

It’s not just national and statewide candidates who benefit from super PAC spending. Last year’s contested mayoral contest in Boston saw the formation of several super PACs that ended up spending millions to support candidates in the race.

Individuals who give directly to a candidate’s campaign account are limited to a maximum yearly donation of just $1,000.