CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia cannot limit contributions to political action committees that act independently of candidates or parties, a federal judge ruled Thursday, agreeing to block the state’s $1,000-per-election cap while one such group challenges its constitutionality.
U.S. District Thomas Johnston granted the preliminary injunction sought by Stay the Course West Virginia and two of its potential donors. The temporary freeze will remain pending the outcome of their lawsuit.
Stay the Course says it seeks to support incumbents it believes have improved West Virginia’s economy and business climate — and target their opponents — in the November general election. The potential donors include Pineville Lumber, a corporation whose president has contributed to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in this year’s gubernatorial race.
With that elected office and the five others in the state executive branch on the ballot this year, along with two of the five seats on the state Supreme Court, independent PACs may play a major role in the fall campaigning.
Allen Prunty, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, cited a series of recent federal rulings at a hearing last week to argue that the state’s limit chills their free speech rights. Those decisions included one by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2010, which allowed an independent expenditure PAC for SpeechNow.org to raise unlimited donations from individuals.
Earlier that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United. It allows unlimited direct spending by corporations and unions on elections. That 5-4 decision also concluded that independent expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is defending the cap in the lawsuit, has sought to argue otherwise. Her lawyer cited a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin from hearing cases involving Massey Energy Co.
That case, also decided 5-4, found a substantial risk of bias because the coal company’s then-chief executive, Don Blankenship, had spent more than $3 million to help Benjamin win election in 2004. Most of the money went to an independent expenditure PAC, And For The Sake Of The Kids.
Pineville Lumber’s president, Everett Hannah, and his family members had also contributed to that 2004 PAC.
But Johnston on Thursday agreed with Stay the Course that the Benjamin-Blankenship case hinged on the right to due process as interpreted under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Citizens United and these other campaign finances address First Amendment free speech rights.
“The government has no interest in maintaining the contribution limit as applied to Plaintiffs, and Plaintiffs certainly have some level of First Amendment interest in soliciting, receiving, and making contributions for independent expenditures,” Thursday’s order said.
Prunty welcomed those findings, noting that Johnston also said his clients “are very likely to succeed” in their pending request for a ruling declaring the cap unconstitutional.
“I look forward to a final resolution of this case in the near future,” Prunty said Thursday.
The lawsuit also seeks to ensure direct corporate contributions to independent expenditure PACs, given the Citizens United decision. The state has amended its laws to reflect that finding, and Tennant’s office has conceded that some of its election literature and other guidance is outdated and fails to reflect those updates.
Tennant’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Thursday.
Stay the Course had not raised or spent any money as of May 20, the latest period for campaign finance reports. It has registered with the state as a PAC and with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a “527” group, referring to the relevant section the tax code. Stay the Course has said in court filings that it will disclose its contributions as required by each agency.
It and Pineville Lumber sued in May along with the PAC’s president and chairman, David Bailey of St. Albans, and a would-be individual contributor, Thomas Stephen Bailey. That potential donor, a Kanawha County resident, wants to give $1,200 to the group while Pineville Lumber seeks to contribute $5,000.