New York City “Pay-to-Play” Law is Upheld

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a New York City “pay-to-play” law against various constitutional challenges: Ognibene v. Parkes. The Pay to play law is in Local Law 34 and it:

  1. Lowers the caps applicable to campaign contributions from parties that have “business dealings” with New York City
    • to $400 (otherwise $4,950 applies to contributors not within the purview of the Law) for candidates for city-wide offices,
    • to $320 (otherwise $3,850) for candidates for borough offices, and
    • to $250 (otherwise $2,750) for candidates for city council,
  2. Prohibits public matching for contributions from the Affected Persons, and
  3. extends a ban on contributions from corporations to apply to partnerships, LLCs, and LLPs.

“Business dealings” include, among other things, “contracts for investment of pension funds” and transactions with “lobbyists”.

The plaintiffs in Ognibeneh include Republican Party members, the New York State Conservative Party, lobbyists, and other business interests. They challenged the Law as a violation of the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act. They lost in the district court and made this appeal. In affirming the district court’s decision, the Second Circuit considered whether the aforementioned provisions of the Law were “closely drawn to address a sufficiently important state interest” and found that each was sufficiently closely-drawn.

The Second Circuit agreed with the district court that the “doing business” contribution limits are “closely drawn” because combating corruption and the public perception of corruption is a sufficiently important justification for placing limits on donations to a candidate. The court draws a distinction from restrictions on independent corporate campaign expenditures which were struck down in Citizens United as overly burdensome limitations on speech.

The court was not persuaded that actual “evidence of recent scandals” was needed to justify the contribution limits. “[T]o require evidence of actual scandals for contribution limits would conflate the interest in preventing actual corruption with the separate interest in preventing apparent corruption.” Finding “no doubt that the threat of corruption or its appearance is heightened when contributors have business dealings with the City” and citing studies by the City Council on the issue, the court held that it is “reasonable and appropriate” to place additional limitations on contributions by Affected Persons.

The court drew another distinguish between the Green Party case in Connecticut and this law. The Connecticut law challenged in Green Party put in place a total ban on contributions, as opposed to mere limits.  However, “if the appearance of corruption is particularly strong due to recent scandals, therefore, a ban may be appropriate.”

Of course, pay-to-play laws are not unique to New York City. The SEC’s Rule 206(4)-5 enacted a similar limit on campaign contributions. Anyone challenging the SEC rule would have to look at this case and realize the SEC rule would like stand up to court scrutiny.


Image is New York City celebrating the surrender of Japan. They threw anything and kissed anybody in Times Square., 08/14/1945 from the US National Archives