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Campaign Reforms - Victory for Minnesota Reform Law

On November 4, 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit issued a decision in Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life v. Kelley, upholding most provisions of a Minnesota reform law that was challenged on First Amendment grounds. NVRI had filed an amicus brief in the case focusing on two key provisions of the law: an aggregate cap on contributions from PACs and large donors, and a provision allowing regulation of groups whose major purpose is to further a candidate's election, even if they do not expressly advocate for candidates.

Minnesota's aggregate contribution cap applies to contributions by PACs, lobbyists, and large individual donors ("large" donors are those giving more than half the permitted contribution for the office in question). Candidates are barred from accepting contributions from those sources in excess of 20% of the expenditure limit applicable to publicly financed candidates. By limiting candidate reliance on the largest donors and special interests, this contribution cap enhances the importance of small donors in political campaigns. In upholding the cap, the 8th Circuit held that it serves the state's important interest in reducing the influence of special interests and avoiding the appearance of corruption.

NVRI's amicus brief also focused on plaintiffs' challenge to the definition of "political committee" in Minnesota. Plaintiffs argued that the definition was overbroad because it was not limited to groups engaged in "express advocacy" for or against a candidate's nomination or election. NVRI, relying on the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in McConnell v. FEC and its 1976 holding in Buckley v. Valeo, argued that the First Amendment does not require use of a narrow "express advocacy" test in regulating political committees whose major purpose is to influence the nomination or election of a candidate, since all of the activities of such a group may be presumed to be election-related. The 8th Circuit, in the course of discussing a different provision concerning disclosure of lobbying contributions, agreed that the "express advocacy" test is not the touchstone for permissible regulation. The court, however, ultimately did not rule on the specific definition of "political committee," concluding that plaintiff Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life lacked standing to challenge the definition in the wake of a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that had judicially narrowed the definition during the course of the litigation.

The 8th Circuit's decision also upheld several other challenged provisions, including limits on contributions to legislative candidates of $500 in an election year and $100 in other years; a requirement that lobbyists disclose the identities of donors who contribute $500 or more to lobbying efforts; and a ban on transfers of funds from one candidate committee to another. The sole regulation struck down by the court was a provision forbidding charitable, religious and educational organizations from soliciting donations from candidates or candidate committees. The court held that this ban was not narrowly tailored because, among other reasons, it applied even if the organization did not know that the prospective donor was a candidate.

The 8th Circuit's decision is here (pdf); NVRI's amicus brief is here (pdf).

To read more about this case, visit our legal library.