The Fourth Circuit will hear oral argument tomorrow in United States v. Danielczyk, a First Amendment challenge to a federal ban on corporate contributions to candidates. The legal arguments in Danielczyk grow out of Citizens United, in which the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a federal ban on independent expenditures by corporations.
The key reasoning in Judge Cacheris’s Danielczyk opinion focused on the idea that “corporations and human beings are entitled to equal political speech rights.” Because a flat contribution ban imposed on human beings would be unconstitutional, so is a flat contribution ban on corporations (who should at least be permitted to contribute within the limits imposed on contributions by human beings). Thus reasoned the district court. Now it’s the Fourth Circuit’s turn.
Apart from interesting issues of campaign finance law, the case presents questions about the proper role of inferior federal courts in assessing whether an earlier Supreme Court decision has been so radically undermined by a later Supreme Court decision as to be effectively overruled. The federal government’s brief focuses primarily on the claim that the issue in this appeal is controlled by the Supreme Court’s decision in FEC v. Beaumont (which reversed a Fourth Circuit decision invalidating the same statutory provision challenged in this appeal).
[UPDATE: The Washington Post is running an AP story by reporter Larry O’Dell on the oral argument. The story notes that one of the judges on the panel was Chief Judge Traxler. The other panelists were Judge Gregory and Judge Diaz. I was unable to attend the oral argument, but this panel seems like a good draw for the government. Judge Gregory authored the panel dissent from the Fourth Circuit decision reversed by the Supreme Court in Beaumont. And while it is dangerous to infer too much from one question, particularly without the context of the argument as a whole, the statement by Chief Judge Traxler quoted in the AP story is a favorable one for the federal government. According to the AP report, Chief Judge Traxler responded to an argument by Jeffrey Lamken, attorney for one of the challengers, by stating, “That may be a great argument, but I just get a little uncomfortable when you’re asking me to overrule the Supreme Court.”]