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Seventh Circuit Enjoins Cap on Political Speech Contributions

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 13, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Wisconsin political contributors, get ready to open your wallets. On Monday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck a Wisconsin election law that caps political speech contributions.

The Wisconsin Right to Life Political Action Committee (Right to Life PAC) challenged the law after learning that two contributors, Terry and Mary Kohler, could not make a planned $5,000 donation to the Right to Life PAC without exceeding their annual political contribution cap. Instead of limiting contributions to a single political candidate, the Wisconsin election law restricts an individual’s total contributions to political speech.

Wisconsin Statute 11.26(4) states: No individual may make any contribution or contributions to all candidates for state and local offices, and to any individuals who, or committees which are, subject to a registration requirement under [Wisconsin Statute] 11.05, including legislative campaign committees and committees of a political party, to the extent of more than a total of $10,000 in any calendar year.

Right to Life PAC sued, claiming that Wisconsin Statute 11.26(4) unconstitutionally limits contributions to committees, like the Right to Life PAC, that only engage in independent spending for political speech.

This week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Right to Life PAC, and permanently enjoined the statute.

Noting that under Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC, "laws that burden spending for political speech -- whether candidate spending or independent spending -- get strict scrutiny and usually flunk," the Seventh Circuit ruled that the aggregate annual contribution limit of the Wisconsin election law is unconstitutional as applied to organizations like the Right to Life PAC.

The Seventh Circuit is not alone in permitting uncapped, independent political speech contributions: The D.C., Ninth, and Fourth Circuits have reached similar conclusions before and after Citizens United v. FEC.

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