thursday, 3 april of 2014

U.S. - Supreme Court strikes down limits on federal campaign donations


Supreme Court strikes down limits on federal campaign donations

A split Supreme Court Wednesday struck down limits on the total amount of money an individual may spend on political candidates as a violation of free speech rights, a decision sure to increase the role of money in political campaigns.

The 5 to 4 decision sparked a sharp dissent from liberal justices, who said the decision reflects a wrong-headed hostility to campaign finance laws that the court’s conservatives showed in Citizens United v. FEC , which allowed corporate spending on elections.

“If Citizens United opened a door,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in reading his dissent from the bench, “today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the opinion striking down the aggregate limits of what an individual may contribute to candidates and political committees.

The decision did not affect the limit an individual may contribute to a specific candidate, currently $2,600.

But Roberts said an individual should be able to contribute that much to as many candidates as he chooses, which was not allowed by the donation cap.

“An aggregate limit on how many candidates and committees an individual may support through contributions is not a modest restaint at all,” Roberts wrote. “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

With Roberts as chief justice, the Supreme Court has never upheld federal campaign finance laws from challenge, a series of decisions that culminated in Citizens United. That has proved to be a ruling deeply unpopular according to polls, and Roberts seemed to acknowledge that in his ruling.

“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.”

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Roberts. Justice Clarence Thomas provided the crucial fifth vote for overturning the limits, but said the others should have gone further to strike all contribution limits.

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

The aggregate totals that the court struck down in the case - McCutcheon v. FEC --imposed a $48,600 limit on contributions to candidates during a two-year election cycle, plus $74,600 total on giving to political parties and committees.

The base limits on contributions left unchanged by the ruling allow donations to candidates of $2,600 for both primary and general elections.

The decision provides a financial boost to political parties, which have lost their dominance with the rise of super PACs and other independent political groups that can raise unlimited sums.

“Today’s court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, which brought the case with Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman.

But advocates for reducing the role of big donors in politics decried the ruling, saying it will further amplify the influence of the wealthy in campaigns. By striking the overall cap on how much individuals can give to federal candidates and parties, the decision opens the door to the creation of super-sized joint fundraising committees that could solicit checks for more than $3 million, they say.

“I was deeply disappointed, but it is what it is,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said shortly after the ruling was announced. “I predict again, there will be major scandals in campaign finance contributions that will cause reform.”

“There will be scandal,” he repeated. “There’s too much money washing around.”

At the heart of the case is the framework created by the court’s seminal 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which upheld limits on campaign contributions that Congress put in place two years earlier in response to the Watergate scandal.

That ruling drew a distinction between contributions, which the court said could be limited to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, and expenditures, which the court determined were a form of direct personal expression.

That decision led to the current lopsided campaign system, in which donors can give a federal candidate only $2,600 per election, but can donate endless sums to super PACs, which must spend their money independently of candidates and parties.

Roberts said there was no reason for the court to overrule Buckley, which is what Thomas wanted to do.

But he said that any regulation on contributions limits had to be focused on “quid pro quo” corruption, meaning something given in exchange for an action.

“Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption,” Roberts wrote.

Breyer and the dissenters said that was too cramped a definition of corruption; under Roberts' definition they said, the contribution would have to be a bribe.

Roberts also took issue with arguments from the government and interest groups that the decision could open giant loopholes so that donors can if effect donate millions of dollars on an individual.

The scenarios, Roberts wrote, “are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality.” Nevertheless, he said, there were additional steps Congress could take to outlaw earmarking.

Breyer said the decision “substitutes judges’ understanding of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress.”

He said that campaign finance laws recognize that large contributions break the chain of communication between the people and their representatives.

“Where money calls the tune, those ideas, representing the voices of the people, will not be heard,” he said.

The case at the court was brought by a wealthy Alabama political donor named Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee.

(Published by The Wall Street Journal - April 2, 2014)

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