Appeals panel: IL law OK letting committees controlled by legislative leaders give unlimited campaign cash

By Scott Holland | Sep 18, 2018

Brushing aside assertions the law allows party leaders to consolidate power statewide, a federal appeals panel has upheld an Illinois campaign finance law which restricts what individual donors can give to political campaigns, while allowing unlimited contributions from legislative caucus committees controlled by partisan leaders within the state's House and Senate.

On Sept. 13, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals came down on the side of the state, rejecting the challenge brought by the Illinois Liberty Political Action Committee, donor Edgar Bachrach and state Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Republican who is current nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

Judges Kenneth Ripple, Diane Sykes and David Hamilton heard arguments Sept. 27, 2017, in the matter, which was initially filed in 2016 against Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and members of the Illinois Board of Elections.

The initial complaint alleged the Illinois Disclosure and Regulation of Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Act violated donors’ First Amendment rights by placing more stringent limits on what individuals can give to political campaigns than on donations made by corporations, unions and other associations; by allowing political parties to make unlimited donations during general election campaigns; creating a waiver provision that lifts spending limits; and letting legislative leaders use legislative caucuses to make unlimited donations to general election candidates.

U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman largely dismissed the first claims, invoking U.S. Supreme Court precedent. But the judge conducted a bench trial on the matter of legislative caucus committees, ultimately determining the law properly treats them the same as political party committees. Liberty PAC maintained they should be classified instead as political action committees, and limited.

Sykes wrote the panel’s opinion on the appeal.

According to the judges, legislative caucus committees may be formed by either the majority or minority leaders of the state House or Senate, or by a group of five senators or 10 representatives of the same party.

“These are powerful political tools,” Sykes wrote. “Legislative caucus committees are subject to the same generous contribution limits as political parties, but a candidate may not accept contributions from more than one legislative caucus committee in a given election cycle.”

In reviewing the entirety of Liberty PAC’s initial complaint, the panel said it failed to show how the state law didn’t adequately address concerns about corruption in establishing individual contribution limits. Sykes said the judges do not believe the law disregards potential corruption by allowing parties to provide unlimited support to general election candidates.

The waiver provision lifts contribution limits for all candidates in a race where one candidate has self-funded or accepted support from independent expenditure groups beyond a certain threshold. The panel said this also passes muster.

“When contribution limits are equally raised for all speakers, no speakers or viewpoints are favored or disfavored,” Sykes wrote.

In considering arguments over how caucus committees should be classified, Sykes referenced a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, FEC v. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which established “congressional caucus committees — the federal analog to legislative caucus committees — are ‘identifiable as part of their respective party.’ ”

Liberty PAC pointed to the ability of a legislative leader to use a caucus committee to consolidate power and retain leadership, but the panel noted Feinerman rejected the reasoning, saying the statehouse leaders are de facto party leaders, and their goals are closely aligned.

The panel also supported Feinerman’s decision to not agree with Liberty PAC’s expert, Marcus Osborn, rejecting his testimony as unpersuasive. Part of his effort was flawed, Sykes explained, because Osborn used theoretical data about political party donor profiles instead of readily available actual data, suggesting the real numbers might have undermined his theory that caucus committees are more susceptible than political parties to outside influence. Likewise, Osborn failed to show how caucus committees use a PAC-style access strategy rather than a party committee’s expansion approach.

Viewing the record in its entirety, Sykes wrote, the panel found nothing to show Feinerman’s factual findings were implausible, and upheld his ruling.

Liberty PAC has been represented in the action by attorneys with the Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago. According to an Associated Press report, the plaintiffs intend to seek to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois Liberty Pac Liberty Justice Center State of Illinois General Assembly U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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