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High court strikes down 'millionaire's amendment'

The move against the fundraising exceptions for wealthy candidates is the latest blow to McCain-Feingold reforms.

By / June 27, 2008

Charles Dharapak/AP

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WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the so-called "millionaire's amendment" of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, saying it violated free-speech protections.

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In a 5-to-4 ruling, the high court said Congress cannot use federal election laws to disadvantage candidates who choose to use their own money to run for a seat in Congress.

The idea behind the law was to prevent a wealthy candidate from using massive personal spending in a campaign to drown out the voices of other candidates. It was also intended to counter the impression that seats in Congress can be purchased.

"The unprecedented step of imposing different contribution and coordinated party expenditure limits on candidates vying for the same seat is antithetical to the First Amendment," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

"The Constitution ... confers upon voters, not Congress, the power to choose the members of the House of Representatives," Justice Alito wrote. "It is a dangerous business for Congress to use the election laws to influence the voters' choices."

The ruling in Davis v. Federal Election Commission (07-320) marks the second time in as many years that the high court has invalidated a portion of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

The measure at issue, Section 319 of BCRA, was aimed at leveling the playing field between candidates with access to personal wealth and those relying on campaign contributions from others.

Section 319 requires congressional candidates who are self-financing their campaigns to abide by stringent finance reporting requirements that don't apply to other candidates. In addition, once a candidate's personal spending in a House race crosses a $350,000 threshold, contribution limits are relaxed for all other candidates in the same race.

The other candidates may accept three times the usual $2,300 limit from individual contributors and receive unlimited coordinated expenditures from political parties. The self-financed candidate, meanwhile, must continue to abide by the lower contribution limits.

"We have never upheld the constitutionality of a law that imposes different contribution limits for candidates who are competing against each other," Alito wrote. "This scheme impermissibly burdens [a self-financed candidate's] First Amendment right to spend his own money for campaign speech."

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the millionaire's amendment does not impose any burden on a self-funded candidate's freedom to speak, it merely helps others to speak. "The Millionaire's Amendment represents a modest, sensible, and plainly constitutional attempt by Congress to minimize the advantages enjoyed by wealthy candidates," Justice Stevens wrote.

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Jack Davis, a wealthy upstate New York businessman who twice ran unsuccessful campaigns to represent New York's 26th congressional district. Mr. Davis, a Democrat, has announced he is running again for the same seat in 2008.