National News

October 8, 2013

High court leery of campaign contribution limits

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to throw out caps on some contributions by the biggest individual donors to political campaigns.

The court’s conservative justices voiced repeated skepticism about overall limits on what individuals may give in a two-year federal election cycle.

Chief Justice John Roberts, possibly the pivotal vote in the case, said that telling an individual he can give the legal maximum of $2,600 per election to only a handful of candidates for Congress “seems to me a very direct restriction” on First Amendment rights.

The court did not appear willing to call into question all contribution limits in its first major campaign finance case since the Citizens United decision in 2010 took the lid off independent spending by corporations and labor unions.

Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala., the national Republican Party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky want the court to overturn the overall limits — $123,200, including a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates, for 2013 and 2014. McCutcheon and McConnell attended Tuesday’s argument.

The limit on individual contributions to any candidate for Congress in any given election, currently $2,600, is not at issue in this case.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the Obama administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, struggled to persuade conservative justices who are skeptical of campaign finance laws that the overall limits serve as a check on corruption. Without them, Verrilli said, donors could write checks of more than $3.5 million and noted that non-presidential election cycles cost a political party and its candidates roughly $1.5 billion.

Absent limits, “less than 500 people can fund the whole shootin’ match,” Verrilli said.

But Justice Antonin Scalia said that in an era of unlimited independent spending, “I don’t think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money.” The other members of the Citizens United majority, Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy also questioned Verrilli’s argument and Justice Clarence Thomas, who asked no questions as is his custom, has long opposed campaign limits.

The court’s four liberal justices appeared inclined to uphold the limits at issue.

McCutcheon, owner of the Coalmont Electrical Development Corp. in McCalla, Ala., said he will spend a few hundred thousand dollars in the current election cycle, including large donations to so-called super PACs that are not affiliated with candidates.

In 2011 and 2012, McCutcheon gave the symbolically significant $1,776 to 15 candidates for Congress and wanted to give the same amount to 12 others. But doing so would have put him in violation of the cap.

The Republican challengers are asking the court to take an even more aggressive approach than merely overturning these particular limits. McConnell is leading the charge to urge the justices to ditch their practice over nearly 40 years of evaluating limits on contributions less skeptically than restrictions on spending.

The differing levels of scrutiny have allowed the court to uphold most contribution limits, because of the potential for corruption in large direct donations to candidates. At the same time, the court has found that independent spending does not pose the same risk of corruption and has applied a higher level of scrutiny to laws that seek to limit spending.

If the court were to drop the distinction between contributions and expenditures, even the per-election contribution limit of $2,600 to any candidate for Congress would be threatened, said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of stringent campaign finance laws.

“This is not about some abstract concept of aggregate limits. It’s about re-establishing a system where huge contributions can be given directly to benefit candidates and parties, and it will create opportunities for the corruption of governmental decisions,” said Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan Democracy 21 group.

In recent years, opponents of campaign finance laws have won a string of victories at the Supreme Court, typically by a 5-to-4 vote with the court’s conservative justices in the majority. Their winning streak dates to the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who often voted to uphold campaign limits, by Justice Samuel Alito, who is far more skeptical of the restrictions.

The sweep of the decision could come down to the willingness of Alito and Roberts to join their three conservative colleagues, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas, in pushing for a tougher review of laws that limit contributions. Those three justices already have said they would consider doing away with the distinction between campaign giving and spending.

 

1
Text Only
National News
  • 10 Things to Know for Thursday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday.

    April 23, 2014

  • US weighs clemency for inmates jailed for 10 years

    The Justice Department is encouraging nonviolent federal inmates who have behaved in prison, have no significant criminal history and have already served more than 10 years behind bars to apply for clemency, officials announced Wednesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • High court tosses $3.4M award to child porn victim

    The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a plea to make it easier for victims of child pornography to collect money from people who view their images online, throwing out a nearly $3.4 million judgment in favor of a woman whose childhood rape has been widely seen on the Internet. Two dissenting justices said Congress should change the law to benefit victims.

    April 23, 2014

  • Airport security vulnerabilities not uncommon

    For all the tens of billions of dollars that the nation has spent on screening passengers and their bags, few airports made a comparable investment to secure the airplanes themselves.

    April 23, 2014

  • Deal signs bill expanding gun rights in Georgia

    Gov. Nathan Deal has signed legislation expanding where people with licenses to carry can bring their guns in Georgia.

    April 23, 2014

  • Indian film awards arrive in Tampa, Fla., but why?

    The so-called Bollywood Oscars have been held in Macau, Singapore, London — and now, Tampa?

    April 23, 2014

  • Indictment: Prosecutor targeted in kidnapping plot

    A North Carolina prosecutor was the intended target of an elaborate kidnapping plot, but the kidnappers looked up the wrong address on the Internet and abducted the prosecutor’s father instead, according to an indictment released Tuesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • Republican activists push party on gay marriage

    As bans against gay marriage crumble and public opinion on the issue shifts rapidly, some Republicans are pushing the party to drop its opposition to same-sex unions, part of a broader campaign to get the GOP to appeal to younger voters by de-emphasizing social issues.

    April 23, 2014

  • Missouri executes inmate for 1993 farm slaying

    Missouri executed an inmate early Wednesday only a few miles from the farm where prosecutors say he orchestrated the 1993 killing of a couple whose cows he wanted to steal.

    April 23, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Wednesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday.

    April 22, 2014