CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia cannot limit contributions to political action committees that act independently of candidates or parties, a federal judge ruled Thursday, agreeing to block the state's $1,000-per-election cap while one such group challenges its constitutionality.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston granted the preliminary injunction sought by Stay the Course West Virginia and two of its potential donors. The temporary freeze will remain pending the outcome of their lawsuit.
Stay the Course says it seeks to support incumbents it believes have improved West Virginia's economy and business climate -- and target their opponents -- in the November general election. The potential donors include Pineville Lumber, a corporation whose president has contributed to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in this year's gubernatorial race.
With that elected office and the five others in the state executive branch on the ballot this year, along with two of the five seats on the state Supreme Court, independent PACs may play a major role in the fall campaigning.
Allen Prunty, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, cited a series of recent federal rulings at a hearing last week to argue that the state's limit chills their free speech rights. Those decisions included one by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2010, which allowed an independent expenditure PAC for SpeechNow.org to raise unlimited donations from individuals.
Earlier that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United. It allows unlimited direct spending by corporations and unions on elections. That 5-4 decision also concluded that independent expenditures "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.''
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is defending the cap in the lawsuit, has sought to argue otherwise. Her lawyer cited a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin from hearing cases involving Massey Energy Co.
That case, also decided 5-4, found a substantial risk of bias because the coal company's then-chief executive, Don Blankenship, had spent more than $3 million to help Benjamin win election in 2004. Most of the money went to an independent expenditure PAC, And For The Sake Of The Kids.
Pineville Lumber's president, Everett Hannah, and his family members had also contributed to that 2004 PAC.