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Campaign finance limits sharply divide Supreme Court. Is there middle ground? (+video)

The Supreme Court's conservative-liberal split was evident during arguments on the challenge to individuals' aggregate campaign finance limits, but a search for middle ground seemed possible.

By Staff writer / October 8, 2013

Cornell Woolridge of Windsor Mill, Md., demonstrates outside the Supreme Court, Tuesday, Oct. 8, as the court heard arguments on campaign finance. The court is weighing a case that could open the way for more money to flow into US elections.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Washington

A sharply-divided US Supreme Court engaged in a pointed debate on Tuesday over whether limiting the total amount of money an individual can give to federal candidates and political committees violates the free-speech rights of would-be campaign contributors.

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By the conclusion of the hour-long argument it appeared the aggregate campaign finance limits under challenge would be struck down. But it also seemed likely that in accomplishing that result the majority justices would wield a scalpel rather than a meat ax.

At issue in the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (12-536), is a provision of federal campaign finance law that restricts the total amount of money an individual can give during a two-year election cycle.

Those challenging the law complain that contributors are already subject to base contribution limits of $2,600 per candidate and up to $32,400 for political committees.

Those base limits were set by Congress to protect against the threat of excessively large and potentially corrupting contributions from one individual to a candidate or party.

The question in the case is whether given those base limits, the second-tier of regulations – the so-called aggregate limit set at $123,200 – is necessary and constitutionally justified.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who in 2012 gave contributions to 15 federal candidates and various committees. He wanted to give to 12 additional candidates and three national political committees, but those extra contributions would have put him over the aggregate limit even though each individual contribution would have complied with the base contribution limits.

He sued, claiming the law violated his free-speech right to contribute to candidates and causes within the base limits established by federal law. 

The division among the justices on the case is sharp and clear. The court’s four-member liberal wing supports the aggregate limits as a necessary part of an overall system of campaign finance regulations.

In contrast, the court’s conservatives are concerned about the cost to free speech rights of the government limiting how much money contributors can give – even when they comply with base contribution limits that avoid an appearance of corruption.

US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the justices that if the aggregate limits were removed, candidates and party officials would be able to circumvent the remaining base limits and theoretically funnel up to $3.6 million from an individual into campaign funds.

“The very fact of delivering that check [for $3.6 million] creates the inherent opportunity for quid pro quo corruption,” Mr. Verrilli said.

Chief Justice John Roberts brushed aside the threat of possible circumvention, and sought to turn the argument instead to the free speech cost to contributors of having to comply with both base and aggregate limits.

“The aggregate limit would have the effect of restricting the ability of a contributor to make the maximum contribution to more than a certain number of candidates,” Verrilli conceded. “We can’t help but acknowledge that. It’s math.”

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