Number of precedents may be vulnerable, experts said.
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court term that opens next week gives the Republican-appointed majority a chance to undercut decades-old precedents in clashes over campaign finance, racial discrimination and legislative prayer.
While the nine-month term lacks the blockbusters of recent years, it features “an unusually large number of cases in which the decision under review relies on a Supreme Court precedent that may be vulnerable,” said Irv Gornstein, executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University.
The court’s four Democratic appointees won major rulings in each of the last two terms, upholding President Obama’s health care law and buttressing gay marriage.
The current docket is dominated by cases more likely to leave at least some of those justices in dissent. The court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, may allow a freer flow of campaign dollars, loosen restrictions on prayer in the public arena and move another step toward a colorblind Constitution. Next year could bring fights over abortion, gun restrictions and contraceptive coverage by employers with religious objections.
The court next week will hear arguments in what may become its biggest campaign-finance case since the 2010 Citizens United ruling allowed unlimited corporate and union spending. Citizens United divided the court 5-4 along ideological lines, with Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in the majority. The new case focuses on contributions to candidates and parties, rather than spending — and raises questions about the 1976 decision that has been the bedrock of campaign-finance law for almost four decades. That ruling, Buckley vs. Valeo, said the government had broad latitude to limit contributions to guard against corruption.
The court in the new term will rule on the federal limits on the total amount people can give candidates, parties and political committees. Individual donors in 2013-14 can give no more than $123,200 every two years, including a maximum of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees.
Those aggregate limits, which date to 1974, are designed to supplement better-known restraints known as base limits. Under those, donors can contribute a maximum of $2,600 to particular candidates per election, $5,000 per year to individual PACs and $32,400 per year to each national party committee. The limits are indexed for inflation and increase every election cycle.
Shaun McCutcheon, a Republican businessman from Alabama who sued to challenge the aggregate limits, contends they violate his free speech rights, limiting his political participation without serving a clear purpose.
McCutcheon gave a symbolic $1,776 to 15 challengers trying to unseat incumbents in the 2012 election. He said he would have given to a dozen more had the aggregate limits not blocked him. “Why is the government telling us we can’t donate to more campaigns?” he said. “We’ve established that $2,600 is not going to hurt anything.”
McCutcheon, who says he has no quarrel with the base limits, is arguing alongside the Republican National Committee and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. On the other side is the Obama administration, which says the aggregate caps ensure donors don’t circumvent the base limits.
Without the aggregate limits, donors could contribute millions of dollars to support a single candidate, says Tara Malloy, a lawyer with the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, which supports the restrictions. The aggregate caps are “crucial to making sure the base limits actually work,” Malloy said.