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Supreme Court to take up case that could overhaul campaign finance

The Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to hear a case that challenges limits on campaign spending, opening the door to a decision that could upend legal precedent on what individuals can contribute to candidates.

By Staff writer / February 19, 2013

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington in this March 28, 2012, file photo, Three years after its landmark Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court is again taking a look at the legal basis for limits on campaign finance spending.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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The US Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to take up a case examining whether limits on the total amount an individual can contribute to political candidates and federal campaigns over a two-year period violate the free speech rights of would-be contributors.

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The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission represents yet another challenge to the nation’s campaign-finance laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

In Citizens United, the court substantially narrowed the justification for imposing limits on political spending during campaign season.

The court eliminated the broader goal of creating a level playing field for all candidates, and instead said that government-imposed spending restrictions could only be justified to prevent actual quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption.

That narrowing of the law opened doors for other potential legal challenges seeking to undermine the broader campaign-finance system. That’s where the McCutcheon case comes in.

The lead plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon of Alabama, is challenging a part of the campaign-finance law that restricts the total amount he can contribute during a two-year election cycle to $117,000.

The law restricts the amount he can give to each candidate ($2,500), to national party political committees ($30,800), state party political committees ($10,000), and other political committees ($5,000).

But that is only one level of regulation. Congress enacted a second level of campaign finance restrictions by imposing an overall limit ($117,000) on how much money can be spent by a contributor in each of the four restricted areas.

It is that second level of regulation that is being challenged.

Mr. McCutcheon wants to know why, if he is restricted to contributing only a limited amount of money to each candidate and each political committee, he is also restricted in the total amount of money he can spend in support of political causes and candidates.

In addition to McCutcheon, the Republican National Committee is also a plaintiff in the case. The Republican Party argues that it would like to accept larger contributions from McCutcheon and others like him.  

If Congress’s justification for imposing the contribution limits was to prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption, then the individual contribution limits should satisfy that government interest, McCutcheon’s lawyers argue.

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