A New Jersey election law prohibits any “corporation carrying on the business of a bank” from donating to political parties. The New Jersey Bankers Association (NJBA), a trade group representing the interests of 88 banks in the state, challenged that law as unconstitutional. For those who follow disputes over U.S. campaign finance law, one might have expected that this case would be decided within a familiar framework: Under the Supreme Court’s well-established principle that campaign contributions are a constitutionally protected form of political speech, the restriction would only be permitted if it is narrowly tailored to advance the government’s compelling interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.
The federal appeals court’s surprising decision in this case, though, sidestepped that usual inquiry entirely. Instead, the court determined that the law in question did not apply to the NJBA in the first place. The court reasoned that the law applies only to “corporation[s] carrying on the business of a bank,” and because the banks’ trade association (the NJBA) does not itself make loans and receive deposits, the NJBA is not a “bank,” meaning the law does not prohibit the NJBA (as distinct from its member banks) from making political donations.
That reasoning is at least questionable as a purely linguistic matter. To “carry on” a business activity can mean both “to engage in or conduct” business oneself and “to develop [a business] beyond a stage already attained.” While a bank trade association does not do the former, it arguably does do the latter—for example, by lobbying against capital constraints that would impede the loan-making capacity of banks. But more importantly, the court’s narrow, literalist reading of the statute is inappropriate in light of its dangerous consequences for New Jersey’s efforts to restrict corruption and the appearance of corruption in the campaign finance system. The court’s ruling permits (at least for now) New Jersey to restrict banks’ campaign contributions, but allows the representative of those banks to make contributions on their behalf. That’s like saying your child isn’t allowed to reach in the cookie jar, but his friend can grab the cookie for him. This misguided decision has thus created a potentially gaping loophole, one allowing affluent industry groups to engage in campaign-related spending that would ordinarily be deemed to present such a high risk of corruption (or its appearance) that government regulation is justified.