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Ninth Circuit Upholds San Diego Contribution Ban

The Ninth Circuit today upheld San Diego’s ban on corporate contributions, properly applying the rule of law as set forth by the Supreme Court in two landmark campaign finance cases.

  • Mark Ladov
June 10, 2011

The Ninth Circuit today upheld San Diego’s ban on corporate contributions, in a decision that fully affirmed a recent district court opinion in Thalheimer v. City of San Diego. In doing so, the Court properly applied the rule of law as set forth by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo (where the Court permitted greater regulation of campaign contributions than expenditures) and FEC v. Beaumont (which upheld the federal ban on direct corporate campaign contributions). The Ninth Circuit’s careful reasoning stands in sharp rebuke to the radical opinion issued earlier this week in U.S. v. Danielczyk, where a Virginia district court judge ignored these controlling Supreme Court precedents in order to rule the corporate contribution ban unconstitutional.

Contribution limits are an important anti-corruption tool. And San Diego’s ban on contributions by corporations, committees, unions and other organizations allows the city to ensure that its law is not evaded. The Supreme Court upheld a similar ban in Beaumont based on this rationale—and Citizens United did nothing to disturb that ruling. As was easily recognized by the Ninth Circuit (following similar rulings by the Second and Eighth Circuits), Citizens United expressly declined to cast any doubt on the Supreme Court’s long-standing opinion that contribution limits are permissible because they “entail[] only a marginal restriction upon the contributor’s ability to engage in free communication.” Buckley, 424 U.S. at 19–20.

The Danielczyk court, alone among federal courts, found otherwise. In doing so, it flouted Supreme Court precedent. Unfortunately, however, the district court acted well within the spirit of “extreme judicial activism” represented by the Citizens United decision.

By reaching beyond the narrow questions posed in Citizens United and ruling so broadly, the Supreme Court gave an emphatic green light to corporations and wealthy special interests that have long sought to dominate our politics. The Court did not merely strike down restrictions on corporate spending that stood for over a century. It also encouraged big political spenders to redouble their efforts to evade the rules that we have implemented to prevent political corruption. 

It’s no surprise that big money is taking up this invitation. For example, we’ve recently seen a scheme by the Republican Super PAC that would encourage federal candidates, officeholders and party officials to violate federal rules against the solicitation of unlimited contributions. These solicitation rules (like San Diego’s corporate contribution ban) are designed to shore up reasonable contribution limits—and to prevent our elected officials from selling access and influence to the highest bidder. The Brennan Center and others have asked the Federal Election Commission to hew to the rule of law and advise that this scheme remains a clear violation of federal statute and Supreme Court precedent.

But it’s more disappointing when a federal judge ignores the rule of law in favor of the radical spirit of Citizens United. We hope that the Fourth Circuit has an opportunity to review the Danielczyk decision on appeal—and that it follows the reasoned and conservative approach taken by the Ninth Circuit today.