CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston on Tuesday struck down state laws limiting contributions to political action committees.
The decision came as part of a suit brought by a PAC, Stay the Course West Virginia, against Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office.
Chapter three, article eight, section 12 of West Virginia Code says a person cannot "directly or indirectly, make any contribution in excess of the value of $1,000" to a campaign for nomination or election. The code also forbids political organizations from accepting contributions of more than $1,000.
Stay the Course West Virginia filed suit over the election laws in May 2012. The group also took issue with language in the "2012 Running for Office in West Virginia" handbook published by Tennant's office, which said direct corporate spending was forbidden in the state.
David Bailey, chairman and treasurer of Stay the Course West Virginia, alleged those laws and regulations were unconstitutional based on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. That decision controversially upheld campaign contributions by corporations as protected speech under the First Amendment.
Johnston issued a preliminary injunction in the case three months later, blocking Tennant's office from enforcing the rules and opening up PAC contributions for the remainder of the 2012 election season.
In Tuesday's decision, Johnston declared those sections of law unconstitutional.
He wrote the U.S. Supreme Court "has recognized only one government interest sufficiently important to outweigh the First Amendment interests implicated by contributions for political speech: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption."
The Citizens United decision "concluded that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," Johnston wrote.
Tennant consented to Johnston's ruling and waived the right to an appeal. According to the order, she is permanently enjoined from enforcing the affected sections of state code.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, Tennant said she came to the conclusion it was "in the best interest of West Virginia taxpayers to cease contesting this lawsuit."
"The ruling follows the holding of the United States Supreme Court in 'Citizens United' and is in line with other federal court rulings in the Fourth Circuit and other circuits. To continue to press what is an unwinnable position will do nothing but run up the tab for which the state will be responsible and which will not result in the overturning of 'Citizens United,'" she said.
Tennant said she "strongly" disagrees with the high court's ruling, but "it is still the law of the land."
Bailey said he expected Johnston would side with Stay the Course, based on his preliminary injunction last year. He said he's pleased with the ruling, but dismayed it required a private citizen's lawsuit to bring West Virginia in line.
"What really should have happened, the state should have taken care of the problem itself," he said.
Bailey said Johnston's ruling opens the door for all groups to contribute to elections without fear of retribution. He said Stay the Course's biggest fear was a local prosecuting attorney would bring an indictment against the group.
"Just because I didn't think it was enforceable doesn't mean we couldn't face charges," he said.
Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, said Johnston's decision would allow more out-of-state money to trickle into West Virginia and influence the outcome of its elections.
"I think, overall, it damages our democratic process," he said. "If you talk to candidates, both incumbents and challengers, they're losing control of their own messages because they're being outspent by these big, well funded, so-called independent campaigns."
He said he isn't sure how the order will affect state election law, but is worried it could remove financial reporting requirements currently in place for political action groups. On the federal level, PACs are no longer required to show where their money comes from.
"The basic premise here is 'follow the money.' When you know where the money comes from, you have a better idea of what kind of influence the donor is looking for in the political process," he said.
The West Virginia Citizens Action Group shepherded a resolution through the state House of Delegates and State Senate earlier this year, condemning the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and asking Congress to reverse it, even if it requires a constitutional amendment.
Although the group is listed as an unaffiliated PAC with the Secretary of State's office, Stay the Course supported Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in his reelection campaign last year. The group identifies itself as "the state's first-ever Super PAC" on its Twitter page and official website.
Stay the Course raised and spent more than $73,000 in 2012, according to documents from the Secretary of State's website.