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.
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.
In effect, if a $2,500 contribution is not corrupting to one or three or five candidates, what is the government’s justification for blocking a would-be contributor from giving $2,500 to a larger number of candidates?
Under the current law, a contributor is restricted from giving the statutory maximum to more than 18 candidates. McCutcheon and his lawyers believe that restriction is an unconstitutional restraint on his right to engage in political speech.
A three-judge panel at the US District Court for the District of Columbia rejected McCutcheon’s challenge and upheld the campaign-finance restrictions last year. The judges noted that the aggregate limits help prevent the evasive channeling of funds by those seeking to circumvent the base contribution limits.
The three-judge panel said it would decline second-guessing the limits set by Congress. And it said that ultimately questions in the case could only be answered by the Supreme Court.
“Plaintiffs raise the troubling possibility that Citizens United undermined the entire contribution limits scheme, but whether that case will ultimately spur a new evaluation [of campaign finance legal precedent] is a question for the Supreme Court, not us,” the three-judge panel wrote.
It is unclear why the high court agreed to hear the case. But campaign finance reform supporters viewed the development as an ominous sign.
“This is an unsettling day for those of us who believe our laws ought to provide more protection – not less – against the corrupting influence of money in our elections and the workings of our government,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar in a statement.
“In Citizens United and a line of other cases, the Roberts court has moved steadily toward an anything-goes approach to money in politics,” he said. “The case it has agreed to hear today invites the court to go further down that path by lifting the longstanding aggregate limit on contributions.”
Mr. Edgar added: “Should the plaintiffs prevail, this case could give a relative handful of wealthy Americans an even greater opportunity than they already have to buy access and influence.”
Campaign Legal Center Senior Counsel Tara Malloy expressed similar concern about the possible outcome in the case.
“If the current aggregate limits were to be struck down, one-, two-, and even three-million dollars in contributions could easily be funneled by a single donor to his or her party and candidates of choice,” she said.
“Corruption, or, at the very least, the appearance of corruption, would be the rule rather than the exception in Washington,” she added.
The case is No. 12-536 and is expected to be heard in the fall in the court’s next term.