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Indiana law bans corporate campaign finance contributions to PACs, state supreme court rules


Indiana law bans corporate campaign finance contributions to PACs, state supreme court rules

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Indiana law bans corporate campaign finance contributions to PACs, state supreme court rules
The contributions issue is expected to go back before a federal court. (Getty Images)

The Indiana Supreme Court on Monday ruled 4-1 that state law prohibits corporate campaign finance contributions to independently spending political action committees known as super PACs.

It’s a win for prominent election law and anti-abortion attorney Jim Bopp, who’s expected to argue before a federal court that the law is unconstitutional under national case law.

Bopp represents the Indiana Right to Life Victory Fund, an anti-abortion super PAC. Sarkes Tarzian, a Hoosier radio and television company, wanted to donate to the fund, but didn’t because it believed state law didn’t allow such contributions.

Campaign finance contributions on the Indiana Supreme Court docket

That’s even though state election officials have committed to not enforcing the law, because it conflicts with a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision: Citizens United v. FEC. Bopp also successfully argued that case.

“So the plaintiffs are suing to stop the election officials from doing something they say they have no intention of ever doing,” wrote Justice Derek Molter in the majority opinion. “… why (should the court) not just interpret the statutes as allowing the contribution?”

He was wholly unconvinced by the state’s reasoning that the laws could be interpreted in multiple ways, calling its arguments “circular.”

Molter wrote that the court interprets statutes according to their “plain meaning,” and doesn’t rewrite them. And because he said the statute at issue was clear, “there is no ambiguity to resolve.”

Molter opined that it is “no doubt time” for state lawmakers to update the law to reflect the Citizens United decision, but added, “we cannot provide a shortcut through judicial interpretation of unambiguous statues.”

The case was first filed in federal court, but that system said it couldn’t offer a decision until a state court established the law’s meaning. The Seventh Circuit eventually passed the case on to the Hoosier system.

Bopp’s expected to take the ruling back to the federal court system to argue that the law is unconstitutional — which Molter anticipated in his opinion. But he said fixes fall to lawmakers, not the court.

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Justice Christopher Goff dissented, arguing that all the parties agreed with the Citizens United decision established First Amendment protections against limitations on corporate contributions to super PACs.

“It has been clear for well over a decade that, should an Indiana official seek to enforce such a restriction, they would likely subject themselves to civil damages, including attorney’s fees, for violating the aggrieved corporation’s federally protected rights,” he wrote.

Goff argued that Indiana election officials, in line with national case law, weren’t enforcing Indiana’s statutes — and that by “taking no action” to update the law, state lawmakers agreed with that interpretation.

“We don’t have to upset the apple-cart by substituting our own rigid textualism for everybody else’s practical, commonsense understanding of the law,” Goff wrote, adding that the legislature surely didn’t “intend to lock horns with” the Supreme Court.