Federal judges: Missouri PAC donation ban unconstitutional
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling in favor of allowing donations between Missouri political action committees, arguing that a state ban on the practice unconstitutionally violates the groups’ First Amendment rights.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges wrote in the ruling that “like individuals, PACs enjoy the right to freedom of speech and association.”
“Restricting the recipients to whom a PAC can donate therefore limits the donor-PAC’s speech and associational rights under the First Amendment,” they concluded.
The ruling in effect means Missouri PACs can continue giving unlimited donations to one another. It’s a blow to efforts by the Missouri Ethics Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, to uphold parts of a constitutional amendment approved by 70 percent of voters in 2016 that sought to limit the role of money in politics.
The $2,600 donation limit per candidate per election — the heart of the constitutional amendment — is still in place.
Several groups, including a pro-right-to-work committee and the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives PAC, had sued to stop the PAC-to-PAC donation ban from taking effect. State attorneys argued that donations between PACs could lead to corruption and enable donors to skirt the donation limits set out in the amendment.
A U.S. district judge in 2017 sided against the state and blocked the ban. The appeals court agreed.
Appeals court judges wrote that the state’s goal to prevent or avoid the appearance of corruption was not compelling enough to infringe on First Amendment rights through the ban. They argued that the risk of quid pro quo corruption — in which elected officials are influenced by political giving — through PAC-to-PAC giving is “modest at best” because those committees are required to act independently from campaigns.
Chuck Hatfield, who represented groups suing to block the provision, said in a Monday statement that the appeals court’s decision “is no surprise.”
“The state has no significant interest in stopping PACs from giving to other PACs,” he said. “Hopefully this decision puts an end to the bulk of the litigation around Amendment 2 so that candidates and donors have a clear understanding of the campaign finance rules in the coming election.”
Mary Compton, spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, said in a statement that the office is “reviewing the ruling and determining next steps.”
State attorneys represented the Missouri Ethics Commission in defending the ban.