Protesters on Tuesday gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington over a constitutional test of campaign finance limits.
Olivier Douliery • Abaca Press via MCT,
Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala. walks past the Capitol as he leaves the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, after the court's hearing on campaign finance.
High court suggests it will strike down campaign finance limits
- Article by: ADAM LIPTAK
- New York Times
- October 8, 2013 - 10:11 PM
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed prepared to strike down a part of federal campaign finance law left intact by its decision in the Citizens United case in 2010: overall limits on direct contributions from individuals to candidates.
The justices seemed to divide along familiar ideological lines, and they articulated starkly different understandings of the role of money and free speech in U.S. politics.
“By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “Then the little people will count some and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections.”
Justice Antonin Scalia responded, sarcastically, that he assumed “a law that only prohibits the speech of 2 percent of the country is OK.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, who probably holds the crucial vote, indicated that he was inclined to strike down overall limits on contributions to several candidates, but perhaps not separate overall limits on contributions to several political committees.
The case is a sort of sequel to the court’s Citizens United decision, which struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. The new case is an attack on the other main pillar of federal campaign finance regulation: limits on contributions made directly to political candidates and party committees.
A look at the challenge
The case was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee. It does not attack the familiar basic limits on contributions from individuals to candidates or party committees. The $2,600 cap on contributions to a given candidate in each election, for instance, is not at issue in the case.
Instead, it takes issue with separate overall limits of $48,600 every two years for individuals’ contributions to all federal candidates and $74,600 to political party committees. (Federal law continues to ban direct contributions to candidates or political parties from corporations and unions.)
“These limits,” said Erin Murphy, a lawyer for McCutcheon, “simply seek to prevent individuals from engaging in too much First Amendment activity.”
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli responded that the aggregate limits were an important tool to prevent circumvention of the base limits. Allowing multiple contributions to interlocking political committees affiliated with candidates and parties could, he said, effectively funnel large sums from individuals to support given candidates. “Aggregate limits combat corruption,” Verrilli said.
A fundamental reassessment
The court’s more liberal members outlined ways the base limits could be avoided. Justice Elena Kagan said it would be possible to write checks for $3.5 million to entities in the hope that the money would find its way to a candidate.
Should the court agree that overall limits are unconstitutional, the decision could represent a fundamental reassessment of a basic distinction established in 1976, which said that contributions may be regulated more strictly than expenditures because of their potential for corruption. The Roberts court has been consistently hostile to campaign finance limits.
© 2013 Star Tribune