(Editor's note, May 22, 2017: The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear Republican Party of Louisiana v. Federal Election Commission. The plaintiff was fighting to dismantle federal rules barring state and local political parties from accepting unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against federal political candidates. The high court's decision means that a federal appellate court's November ruling against the Republican Party of Louisiana stands.)
Most Americans last heard from conservative lawyer James Bopp six years ago when he crafted a case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that won the Supreme Court’s favor and helped uncork a torrent of cash — some of it secret — that continues pouring into elections.
But Bopp is back. The Terre Haute, Indiana-based attorney, who was literally laughed at by a judge when he made his first arguments in Citizens United, is now the lead lawyer in the most prominent of a series of lawsuits attempting to further destroy political contribution limits. The case, brought by the Republican Party of Louisiana, addresses restrictions on how state and local political parties use “soft money” contributions to influence federal elections.
Bopp’s clients argue that if independent outside groups such as super PACs are permitted to raise and spend unlimited amounts of such money, there’s no reason why state political parties, acting independently of federal candidates, should be treated differently. Political parties are “disadvantaged” compared to super PACs, Bopp said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity. “They want to compete, and they want to do this activity without the severe restrictions that they suffer under.”
Bopp says he won’t rest until there are as few election rules as possible since he believes that too many rules lead to more opportunities to game the political system. “When you say, ‘Congress shall make no law,’ I know that’s kind of a shocking statement, but it’s a pretty definitive statement,” he said, referring to the First Amendment and its application to political speech. “There shouldn’t be any laws as opposed to thousands of pages of laws and regulations that you have now in the federal system.”
The stakes are high. If the Republican Party of Louisiana wins the case, “in effect, the ‘soft money’ world of the late ‘90s and 2002 would be reestablished,” purging some of the last remnants of McCain-Feingold and other restraints on donations, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School and expert on election law.
Tara Malloy, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, which favors campaign contribution limits, compares the deregulatory approach of those like Bopp who are fighting against limits to peeling an onion.
“First it was the aggregate limits, which was sort of like the outermost protection. Now they’re going for the party limits, which again seems one degree removed from a direct contribution for the candidate,” she said. “I assume if they were successful here, they would go for the rest.”