Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Limits on Federal Campaign Contributions

4/2/14
 
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from The New York Times,
4/2/14:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a major campaign finance decision, striking down limits on federal campaign contributions for the first time. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and most likely increase the role money plays in American politics.

The decision, by a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, was a sequel of sorts to Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. But that ruling did nothing to affect the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties.

Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.

It did not disturb familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the First Amendment required striking down the limits. “There is no right in our democracy more basic,” he wrote, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

Dissenting from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the decision a blow to the First Amendment and American democracy. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”

The decision chipped away at the central distinction drawn by the Supreme Court in its seminal 1976 campaign finance decision, Buckley v. Valeo. Independent spending, the court said in Buckley, is political speech protected by the First Amendment. But contributions may be capped, the court said, in the name of preventing corruption. The court added that aggregate contribution limits were a “quite modest restraint upon protected political activity” that “serves to prevent evasion” of the base limits.

Wednesday’s decision concerned only contributions from individuals. Federal law continues to ban contributions by corporations and unions.

Wednesday’s decision may increase overall campaign spending, but it may also rechannel some of it away from “super PACs” and toward candidates and parties.

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