New Jersey election officials agreed Wednesday to halt enforcement of political-spending limits that admittedly contravene the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and its progeny.
Settling a super PAC’s lawsuit, the Election Law Enforcement Commission promised to allow unlimited receipts and expenditures by political committees that don’t give directly to candidates.
ELEC also agreed to urge changes to the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Act’s capping provision, which bars a political action committee from accepting more than $7,200 from an individual, union or corporation.
The suit, Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security v. ELEC, 13-cv-2177, was lodged by an “expenditure-only” PAC that supports or opposes candidates through advertisements but doesn’t directly contribute to, spend money on behalf of, or otherwise coordinate with the candidates.
In February, the PAC asked ELEC whether it was constrained by the contribution limits. Because New Jersey is one of only two states to hold gubernatorial and legislative elections in 2013, the PAC had plans to dedicate more than half of this year’s budget to New Jersey races, it said.
On March 21, ELEC issued advisory opinion No. 01-2013, in which the 2-1 majority concluded that the PAC is bound by the limits.
The agency acknowledged concerns presented by federal case law derived from and including Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), which held contribution limits violated constitutional free-speech rights.
But ultimately, ELEC was required to enforce the statute, and only the Legislature or the courts could waive contribution caps, the majority said.
The PAC sued on April 5 in federal court in Trenton, relying on Citizens United and rulings by appeals courts in the Seventh, Ninth and D.C. circuits that organizations may accept and solicit unlimited donations from corporations and unions for independent expenditures. The suit alleged violations of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
On April 26, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp granted a preliminary injunction, finding that the PAC was likely to prevail on the merits and risked irreparable injury, and that the injunction was in the public’s interest.
Then on July 11, Shipp approved the consent agreement.
Aside from going along with the permanent injunction, ELEC also agreed to withdraw its March advisory opinion and recommend that lawmakers amend the statutory provisions so the agency may in turn change its regulations.
According to ELEC, the PAC raised $1.75 million and spent $508,536 in connection with last month’s primary elections.
ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle, in announcing the agreement Wednesday, said: “How we enforce the law depends on the circumstances. If a political committee also contributes to candidates, it would have to stay within our contribution limits.
“But if another political committee wants to do independent-only spending, contribution limits would be unenforceable,” he added.
ELEC’s counsel in the matter, Edwin Matthews of Bourne, Noll & Kenyon in Summit, defers comment to Brindle.
The PAC’s lead counsel, Marc Elias of Perkins Coie in Washington, D.C., did not return a call by press time Wednesday.
Trish Graber, Senate Democratic spokeswoman, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the agreement or possible corrective legislation.
Neither did Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie.