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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court strikes down aggregate campaign contribution limits; dissent says law is eviscerated

Posted Apr 2, 2014 9:19 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Citing a First Amendment right to political association, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down aggregate limits on direct contributions from individuals to federal political candidates and committees.

The court ruled Wednesday in a 5-4 decision (PDF). The opinion for the court by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was joined by three other justices, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justice Clarence Thomas supplied the fifth vote in a concurring opinion that would go further and overrule the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, which allowed restrictions on some campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption.

According to the New York Times, today's major decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission "will change and most likely increase the role money plays in American politics."

For the 2013-14 election cycle, the aggregate limits allowed individuals to contribute a total of $48,600 to federal candidates and a total of $74,600 to other political committees.

Roberts said the aggregate contribution limits do little, if anything, to address the permissible objective of battling quid-pro-quo corruption, “while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process.”

“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts said in his opinion.

Federal law imposed two kinds of limits on individual contributions: base limits on how much an individual may donate to a particular candidate or a committee, and aggregate limits on how much individuals can contribute in total to candidates or committees. The U.S. Supreme Court previously upheld base limits in Buckley, and they weren’t at issue in the case.

Though Buckley also allowed an aggregate limit, that opinion "spent a total of three sentences analyzing that limit," imposed under a different statutory regime, Roberts said. "We think that its ultimate conclusion about the constitutionality of the aggregate limit ... does not control here," Roberts said.

Roberts said statutory safeguards enacted after Buckley helped prevent circumvention of base campaign limits. In light of those safeguards, "the indiscriminate aggregate limits under [the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] appear particularly heavy-handed," Roberts said.

"It is no answer to say that the individual can simply contribute less money to more people," Roberts said. "To require one person to contribute at lower levels than others because he wants to support more candidates or causes is to impose a special burden on broader participation in the democratic process."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. "Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission," Breyer wrote, "today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."

Breyer argued that First Amendment interests "lie on both sides of the legal equation."

"The First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters," he wrote. "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard."

ABA President James Silkenat said in a statement Thursday that the large amount of money flowing through political campaigns "has contributed to the public’s deep and growing cynicism about the integrity of our electoral process." And Wednesday's ruling, by dismantling a key component of campaign finance regulation, will cause still more money to pour into elections and only increase the public's concerns.

"In light of this development, it will be critical to ensure that this additional money is not used in a way that circumvents other contribution limits still in place and to ensure full and timely disclosure of all federal campaign contributions and expenditures," Silkenat said. "These actions will make our democracy more viable and strengthen our citizens' faith and trust in government."

Justice at Stake executive director Bert Brandenburg issued a statement criticizing the decision for its possible impact on judicial elections. “This decision is another big win for special interests and big spenders," Brandenburg said. "If these trends trickle down into judicial campaigns, it will ratchet up pressure on elected judges to answer to big money instead of the law and the Constitution. That’s bad for justice and bad for our democracy.”

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog, which summarized the holding seconds after the decision was issued.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: "SCOTUS campaign finance ruling likely to increase clout of party officials"

Last updated April 3 to add comments from Silkenat.

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