(CN) - Several restrictions Texas places on political action committees are unconstitutional violations of their free-speech rights, the 5th Circuit ruled.
The nonprofit Catholic Leadership Coalition of Texas joined three PACs - Texas Leadership Coalition Institute for Public Advocacy, Friends of Safa Texas and Texas Freedom PAC - in a 2012 federal complaint against members of the Texas Ethics Commission and Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed.
Existing as "general-purpose" committees - PACs that promote a particular point of view - the plaintiffs opposed restrictions that require them to collect donations from 10 contributors, then wait 60 days before collecting or spending more than $500.
Though the trial court in Austin upheld the laws on cross-motions for summary judgment, a three-judge panel with the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit disagreed Tuesday, striking down the 60-day, $500 limit and 10-contributor restrictions.
It said the 60-day limit on expenditures is a "severe burden on speech" because it might stop immediate responses to late-breaking events.
"We reject Texas's suggestion that the 60-day burden does not constitute a significant restriction on speech because a general-purpose committee will know when it will be severely limited in its speech," the 57-page opinion states. "We therefore conclude that the 60-day, 500-dollar limit is unconstitutional insofar as it limits a general-purpose committee, such as TLC-IPA, to funding only $500 in independent expenditures."
Regarding the 60-day, $500 limit on contributions, Texas cannot justify it as a way to stop circumvention of contribution limits on specific-performance PACs during legislative sessions and judicial elections, according to the ruling.
The plaintiffs also proved the 60-day, $500 limit facially unconstitutional.
"Plaintiffs have demonstrated that the 60-day, 500-dollar limit is unconstitutional both when it functions as a limitation on expenditures and when it functions as an aggregate contributions cap," Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote for the court. "As such, the 60-day limit appears to have no legitimate sweep (or at the very least is vastly overbroad). Nor is this a situation where we can rewrite Texas law to conform to constitutional requirements." (Parentheses in original.)
Regarding the 10-contributor limit on contributions, the appeals court concluded it "does not withstand constitutional scrutiny."
"Texas does not show that its aggregate contribution cap directly advances the state's interest in combatting quid pro quo corruption 'in any meaningful way,'" the opinion states. "Nor is the provision a sufficiently tailored anticircumvention measure. Texas advances no reason why more narrowly tailored base contribution limits until a committee acquired ten contributors would not similarly serve its interests."
The 10-contributor limit on expenditures is unconstitutional because it does not promote "a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest," Clement added.
"Texas cannot show the ten-contributor requirement directly combats corruption because independent expenditures do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," she wrote. "Accordingly, Texas is forced to try to defend the ten-contributor requirement on the basis that it supports Texas's disclosure requirements. But that argument does no better."
Texas may, however, continue to ban PACs from accepting corporate contributions unless the committee engages only in independent spending.
The court also upheld a requirement that a PAC must appoint a committee treasurer that registers with the TEC.
Texas Freedom PAC did not respond to a request for comment.
Phil Sevilla, president of the Catholic Leadership Coalition of Texas, said in an interview Thursday that the group celebrated the ruling with its attorney. He deemed Texas' restrictions as "onerous."
"More critical work must be done to ensure our civil liberties as free citizens are protected from the overreaching arms of government bureaucracies," Sevilla said. "It was disconcerting to see a phalanx of state attorneys spend countless hours and resources at taxpayer expense to defend unconstitutional provisions in the Texas Election Code. There are other areas in the code that should be challenged."