As discussed last fall, against the fairly settled case law around the country, New York continued to fight against Super PACs. A Super PAC is a political committee that typically funds ads advocating for or against candidates, but that may not coordinate its spending with candidates and their campaigns. New York argued that its annual limit on total contributions an individual may make to all New York political committees of $150,000 applied to independent expenditure-only Super PACs. A Super PAC that wanted to support a New York City mayoral candidate in last November’s election challenged that law, but lost in the lower court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that decision saying, “[f]ew contested legal questions are answered so consistently by so many courts and judges.” Yet New York continued to fight when the case went back to the lower court.
Yesterday, the district court held that limits on contributions to the plaintiff are unconstitutional, stating: “[o]nce it is determined that [plaintiff] is an independent expenditure-only organization, there is little left for the Court to do.” It was clear from the judge’s opinion that he did not like this result, but felt bound by Supreme Court precedent (both Citizens United and the recent McCutcheon decision).
It’s not clear what New York will do next. It seems futile to appeal further, so the logical step would be for the State to announce that it will no longer enforce the limits on individual contributions to all Super PACs. If the state does not announce that it will no longer enforce the limits, other groups will likely file suit to obtain the benefits of these decisions for themselves.
There is another outstanding issue as well that is winding through the courts: does a separate aggregate cap of $5,000 on corporate contributions apply to contributions to Super PACs? That issue is currently before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District in New York. The plaintiffs in that case recently informed the court that, although not the relief they requested, McCutcheon calls into question New York’s aggregate cap on individual and corporate contributions in any application. The State replied that it is reviewing McCutcheon and will respond. If the court overturns the corporate aggregate cap, either as-applied to Super PACs or across the board, then New York would come into line with most other jurisdictions just in time for this November’s gubernatorial election.
* Admitted in Maryland; not yet admitted in D.C.