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Federal appeals court strikes down Wis. donation law (UPDATE)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday struck down a Wisconsin law limiting how much any one person can donate to independent political action groups.

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Wisconsin Right to Life’s political action committee, saying the state’s $10,000 annual limit was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

Wisconsin Right to Life brought the lawsuit just before recall elections targeting nine state senators in August. It won a temporary injunction in August and the federal appeals court made that permanent Monday.

Since the limit had not been enforced since August, Monday’s ruling does not change anything, said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin. He declined to comment further on the ruling, saying the board had just received it and had not had a chance to read it in detail.

Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, called it a “sweeping victory” that will allow the organization to “significantly contribute to the state and national dialogue on speech and elections.”

The practical effect of the ruling will be that candidates become even more irrelevant as the ability of special interest groups to raise large amounts of money to spend on their own advertising increases, said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

“I’m not sure that very many people will notice a difference because money is flowing so freely in Wisconsin politics,” McCabe said. “There’s no shortage of channels through which special interest funds can flow.”

The appeals court cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the landmark campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United, which overturned a previous ban on corporate spending in federal elections, as justification for striking down the Wisconsin law.

In that case, the Supreme Court found there is no valid government interest sufficient to justify imposing fundraising limits by independent organizations, the appeals court said. Given that, “as a matter of law and logic,” Wisconsin’s law limiting donations to organizations like the Wisconsin Right to Life PAC is unconstitutional, the court said.

“Citizens United held that independent expenditures do not pose a threat of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption, which is the only governmental interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote in Monday’s decision.

Spending on the nine state Senate recalls last summer totaled an estimated $44 million, according to watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Much of that spending came from groups not organized as PACs, and therefore not subject to the state campaign contribution limit.

Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and four Republican state senators are being targeted for recalls next year. Spending in the Walker recall, should it go to an election, is expected to far exceed the total spent this summer on the Senate races.

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