MU law professor: Lifting PAC donation ban limits transparency
COLUMBIA — An MU law professor said a federal appeals court ruling that allows donations between Missouri political action committees, or PACs, is a concern to the role big money plays in politics.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling in favor of allowing donations between Missouri political action committees, arguing that a state ban on the practice unconstitutionally violates the groups' First Amendment rights.
On Monday the appeals court wrote in the ruling that "like individuals, PACs enjoy the right to freedom of speech and association."
"Restricting the recipients to whom a PAC can donate therefore limits the donor-PAC's speech and associational rights under the First Amendment," they concluded.
The ruling in effect means Missouri PACs can continue giving unlimited donations to one another. It's a blow to efforts by the Missouri Ethics Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, to uphold parts of a constitutional amendment approved by 70 percent of voters in 2016 that sought to limit the role of money in politics.
Richard Reuben said the 2016 amendment was basically designed to prevent PACs from getting around the contribution limits. The $2,600 donation limit per candidate per election — the heart of the constitutional amendment — is still in place.
"[Corporations] want to be able to use PACs to distribute money to other PACs so that when one PAC maxed out on its contributions, another one can still fund the same candidate because it's a different PAC and it has its own limits to reach," Reuben said.
"It's really the people who want to spend a lot of money on political campaigns who were the most upset with the (previous) Missouri rule," he said.
Several groups, including a pro-right-to-work committee and the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives PAC, had sued to stop the PAC-to-PAC donation ban from taking effect. State attorneys argued that donations between PACs could lead to corruption and enable donors to skirt the donation limits set out in the amendment.
A U.S. district judge in 2017 sided against the state and blocked the ban. The appeals court agreed.
Appeals court judges wrote that the state's goal to prevent or avoid the appearance of corruption was not compelling enough to infringe on First Amendment rights through the ban. They argued that the risk of quid pro quo corruption — in which elected officials are influenced by political giving — through PAC-to-PAC giving is "modest at best" because those committees are required to act independently from campaigns.
Chuck Hatfield, who represented groups suing to block the provision, said in a Monday statement that the appeals court's decision "is no surprise."
"The state has no significant interest in stopping PACs from giving to other PACs," he said. "Hopefully this decision puts an end to the bulk of the litigation around Amendment 2 so that candidates and donors have a clear understanding of the campaign finance rules in the coming election."
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley's office, which represented the Missouri Ethics Commission, did not immediately comment.
Reuben said that the greatest concern with this ruling is that PACs have an added benefit of being able to directly donate to a candidate giving way to possible corruption.
"It's disappointing to see yet another attempt to regulate the flow of big money in politics be thwarted in the courts," Reuben said.