The Holmes Case: Deceptively Dangerous for Campaign Contribution Limits

Gavel resting on stack of money

On Wednesday, the full panel of judges at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument in Holmes v. FEC. This is a seemingly minor case that could have major implications for campaign finance regulation.


A First Amendment Challenge to Campaign Contribution Limits

Federal law currently limits how much money an individual can donate to a candidate per election: up to $2,700 in a primary, $2,700 in a general election, and $2,700 in any runoff or special election.

Plaintiffs Laura Holmes and Paul Jost, however, claim that they do not want to donate to any candidates in primary elections, preferring to wait until the general election to give money to candidates in certain congressional districts. They each wish to donate twice as much as the law allows: $5,400 to each candidate they support. They say that because they’re not giving money in the primary – and because the opponents of the candidates they support were unopposed in the primary (and could put people’s primary donations toward the general election) – they should instead be able to give double the legal limit in the general election. They claim that Congress has not proven that it needs to divide the limits between primary and general elections in order to reduce corruption, and that by refusing to allow them to donate $5,400 the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is violating their First Amendment rights.

Preserving Legislative Deference to Protect the Political System from Corruption

The plaintiffs’ argument, however, runs counter to longstanding campaign finance law. Courts have traditionally shown the legislative branch a degree of deference in its design of campaign contribution limits. This makes sense as a matter of relative expertise: it is Congress’s job, not the courts’, to determine the details of public policy. This is doubly true in the area of campaign finance law, since “legislators have ‘particular expertise’ in matters related to the costs and nature of running for office” while judges do not.[1] The Supreme Court has also recognized that contribution limits pose relatively little threat to First Amendment rights, while protecting our political system from the corrosive effects of corruption.

For all of these reasons, the court has said that contribution limits are constitutional as long as they are not so low as to make it difficult for candidates to run campaigns.[2] Because courts have “no scalpel to probe, whether, say, a $2,000 ceiling might not serve as well as $1,000,” states and the federal government have great leeway to choose the dollar amounts of their contribution limits.[3] The same rule of deference applies to matters of how the limits are structured. This includes the question of whether to set contribution limits on an “election-cycle” basis, on an annual basis, or on a “per-election” basis (counting primaries, general elections, runoffs, and special elections separately).

If the plaintiffs were right that holding them to the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (FECA) per-election limits violates the First Amendment, every state would be forced to move to election-cycle limits. But only six states currently use this method. Instead, Congress and three-quarters of the states with contribution limits have chosen to use a per-election structure.

With per-election limits, donors can associate with candidates in each election – and candidates can ensure that they have enough money to run in each election – without having to allow higher contribution limits for candidates across the board. States are free to decide that another structure would work better, but that is the point: legislatures have leeway to make this decision for themselves.

And this is why the Holmes case is so important. To rule for the plaintiffs, the D.C. Circuit would have to blow through four decades of Supreme Court precedent and decide that legislatures do not deserve any deference in how they choose to structure their campaign finance laws. Every single decision that Congress or a state makes about the dollar amounts of their contribution limits, or their timing, or their application across different offices or donors, would have to be justified with its own separate anti-corruption purpose. The courts would effectively take over the making of campaign finance policy.

Part of a Trend in a Series of Attacks

Holmes is part of a new wave of cases through which anti-campaign finance groups hope to hack away at legislative deference. In Lair v. Motl, a case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, campaign finance reform opponents are arguing that a state must prove ongoing, successful examples of quid pro quo corruption within that state in order to justify contribution limits. Quid pro quo corruption is the most obvious type of corruption, where two favors are exchanged.

Like the Holmes plaintiffs’ claims, this argument directly flouts longstanding Supreme Court precedent that gives legislatures far greater freedom to enact campaign finance laws.[4] Other cases that challenge legislative deference are pending all over the country, from the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit  to the Texas state courts to the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

If successful, cases like Holmes would make it very difficult for legislatures to design campaign finance laws at all. That, in the end, is what the groups bringing these lawsuits want. But if courts follow precedent, then these organizations will not succeed. Although a ruling for the plaintiffs seems unlikely, CLC has filed an friend-of-the-court brief to remind the D.C. Circuit of the profound effect that such a ruling could have on campaign finance laws nationwide.


[1] See Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230, 248 (2006) (plurality opinion).

[2] Id.

[3] Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 30 (1976) (per curiam).

[4] See, e.g., Randall, 548 U.S. at 248; Nixon v. Shrink Mo. Gov’t PAC, 528 U.S. 377, 390-94 (2000).