Supreme Court view on corruption key in lifting a campaign finance limit

Four years after Citizens United, the Supreme Court further restricted the scope of campaign finance laws by striking down aggregate limits on individuals’ contributions to federal candidates.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Cornell Woolridge of Windsor Mill, Md., takes part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on campaign finance, in Oct. 2013. The Supreme Court struck down limits Wednesday in federal law on the overall campaign contributions the biggest individual donors may make to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

Four years after ruling that corporations can independently spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, the US Supreme Court further restricted the scope of campaign finance laws by striking down aggregate limits on individuals’ contributions to federal candidates.

In reaching its decision Wednesday, the high court’s conservative wing embraced a narrow reading of the type of corruption necessary to justify restrictions on campaign contributions.

The justices said that big money contributors obtaining preferential access to and influence with elected officials as a result of large campaign contributions was not the kind of quid pro quo corruption that would justify government limits on First Amendment rights.

Advocates of strict campaign finance laws denounced the ruling as a danger to the American electoral process and the quality of democracy.

Supporters of the high court’s approach praised the justices as defending core principles safeguarding political speech from government censorship.

Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government restrictions on the aggregate amount of money an individual can contribute to political candidates and political committees in an election violate free speech rights protected by the First Amendment.

Voting 5 to 4, the high court invalidated a portion of the federal campaign finance law that established a two-tier system to regulate the amount of money flowing from individual contributors to political candidates and parties.

The campaign finance law bars individuals from giving more than $2,600 to any one candidate and more than $32,400 to national political committees. But the law also prohibited individuals from spending a total of more than $123,200 on political campaigns per election cycle.

It is that second restriction, the aggregate limit, that the majority justices said violated constitutional protections.

The Obama administration, representing the Federal Election Commission, had argued that aggregate limits were necessary to prevent attempts by unscrupulous contributors and political operatives to circumvent contribution limits to support favored candidates and parties.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected that view.

“We conclude … that the aggregate limits do little, if anything, to address that concern [of circumvention], while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in a 40-page opinion.

He was joined in the decision by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas provided a fifth vote in a concurrence.

At the core of the decision is the idea that individual contributors have a free speech right to contribute to their chosen candidates without facing unjustified government restrictions.

The high court decision leaves in place the base limits imposed on contributions to individual candidates and parties. By lifting the aggregate limit it means that would-be contributors are now free to give the allowable amount of political contributions to as many individual candidates as they wish.

Aggregate limits on contributions do not support a compelling government interest, Justice Roberts said. Instead they “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”

Portions of the chief justice’s decision are defensive in tone, perhaps in anticipation of an expected torrent of criticism.

“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts wrote. “If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades – despite the profound offense such spectacles cause – it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

In a 30-page dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer blasted the decision, saying it would create “a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”

“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,” he wrote.

The dissent was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Wednesday’s decision marks a significant extension of the high court’s ruling four years ago in Citizens United v. FEC. In that opinion, the court’s conservative wing rejected the idea that campaign finance restrictions could be justified by a desire to level the playing field between candidates with access to financial resources and those without.

Instead, the court said such restrictions could only be justified by a desire to prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of it.

The new rationale expressed in Citizens United raised questions about whether aggregate limits on campaign spending were still constitutionally justified. If contributors comply with the individual limits on contributions – a level too low to give rise to accusations of quid pro quo corruption – then what was the compelling need for the extra tier of aggregate limits on campaign contributions?

Leveling the playing field by restricting the flow of money in politics is not a justification embraced by the conservatives on the high court.

“No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to ‘level the playing field,’ or to ‘level electoral opportunities,’ or to ‘equalize the financial resources of candidates,’ ” Roberts said in Wednesday’s ruling.

The decision also rejects arguments that campaign finance laws can regulate the connection between large amounts of money in politics and the influence and access that result from it.

“The line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence may seem vague at times, but the distinction must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights,” Roberts said. “In addition, in drawing that line, the First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.”  

Announcement of the decision brought swift condemnation and dire predictions from supporters of rigorous campaign finance laws.

Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause, said the decision would open “the floodgates for the nation’s wealthiest few to drown out the voices of the rest of us.”

“The court has reversed nearly 40 years of its own precedents, laid out a welcome mat for corruption, and turned its back on the lessons learned from the Watergate scandal,” Mr. Rapoport said.

In contrast, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, praised the high court. “The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice,” he said.

The court did not strike down limits on the amount that can be contributed to candidates, political action committees, or parties, he said. Instead, the court said that individuals have a right to decide for themselves how many candidates or parties to support within congressionally set contribution limits.

“Let me be clear for all those who would criticize the decision: it does not permit one more dime to be given to an individual candidate or party – it just respects the constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support.”

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon. In the 2011-2012 election season, Mr. McCutcheon contributed to 16 different candidates and various political committees.

He wanted to contribute to 12 more candidates and three national committees, but the extra contributions would have put him over the aggregate limit.

McCutcheon filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the campaign finance restrictions. His lawyers argued that all of McCutcheon’s contributions complied with the base contribution limit to each candidate and each committee. Nonetheless, he was also required to comply with the aggregate limits.

They said that since each individual contribution was within limits that would not give rise to quid pro quo corruption or its appearance, he should not be subject to aggregate limits as well.

The case went to a panel of three federal judges who ruled against McCutcheon and upheld the aggregate limits.

McCutcheon appealed to the US Supreme Court.

In reversing the lower court, Roberts said the judges had relied on a scenario it could “imagine” of money being funneled through various committees to a single candidate.

“These scenarios, along with others that have been suggested, are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality,” he said. In addition, he said, Congress could take steps to limit money transfers and further regulate joint fund-raising committees.

He added that contribution disclosure laws would also help police campaign finance system.

The case was McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (12-536).

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