US court cites Citizens United in allowing donation to PAC in NYC mayoral race

The US appeals court in New York, citing Citizens United, said the state could not enforce a limit on political donations to an independent PAC backing GOP mayoral candidate Lhota.

Kathy Willens/Pool/AP
New York City Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, (l.) and Republican candidate Joe Lhota participate in the second of three debates prior to the Nov. 5 general election, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, in New York.

A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked the enforcement of a state campaign finance law that barred an independent political action committee in New York City from accepting a $200,000 donation it wanted to use to support Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).

The court said the state could not enforce a $150,000 limit on political contributions when the contributions were being made to an independent group operating apart from a particular candidate.

New York State election law imposes a $150,000 aggregate annual limit on political contributions by any person in the state.

A conservative political action committee, New York Progress and Protection PAC (NYPPP), filed suit in federal court seeking a court order to block enforcement of the state’s contribution limits.

The group said it had a prospective donor prepared to give $200,000 and that the state’s contribution cap violated the group’s core First Amendment right to advocate in favor of Mr. Lhota in the approaching mayoral election.

A federal judge refused to block the campaign finance law.

The judge felt an injunction issued in the final days before the mayoral election would create confusion and that an injunction permitting a significant influx of money to one political group but not to others would “amplify NYPPP’s voice over the voices of other political committees.”

In rejecting the judge’s concerns, the appeals court said the campaign finance restrictions would cause irreparable harm to the political speech of the group.

While the appeals court said it was not now ruling on the constitutionality of the state's campaign finance law, it suggested that the political action committee has a strong case.

“Although we express no opinion on the ultimate outcome, the plaintiff here has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits,” Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote for the court.

“The Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. FEC that the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting independent expenditures,” he said. “It follows that a donor to an independent expenditure committee such as NYPPP is even further removed from political candidates and may not be limited in his ability to contribute to such committees.”

“All federal circuit courts that have addressed this issue have so held,” he said. “Few contested legal questions are answered so consistently by so many courts and judges.”

The appeals court also rejected a conclusion by the district court judge that NYPPP wasn’t really independent since it had only one purpose – to advance a single candidate in a single point of time.

Judge Jacobs said that Supreme Court precedent establishes that political committees that operate without any prearrangement or coordination with a political candidate are deemed independent. He added: “An independent committee’s choice to advocate on behalf of a single candidate, and its formation after that candidate is nominated, are irrelevant.”

The appeals court reversed the district judge’s decision and ordered the court to enter a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of New York’s campaign finance law against NYPPP and its donors, provided the donations are for independent political expenditures.

“The hardship faced by NYPPP and its donors from the denial of relief is significant,” the appeals court said. “Every sum that a donor is forbidden to contribute to NYPPP because of this statute reduces constitutionally protected political speech.”

The New York City mayoral election is set for Nov. 5. According to a recent poll, Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio is leading the Republican candidate, Mr. Lhota, 64 percent to 23 percent.

The case is New York Progress and Protection PAC v. Walsh (13-3889).

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