Supreme Court strikes down overall political donation cap, by Adam Liptak

The Supreme Court on Wednesday continued its abolition of limits on election spending, striking down a decades-old cap on the total amount any individual can contribute to federal candidates in a two-year election cycle.

The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will very likely increase the role money plays in American politics.

The 5-to-4 decision, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority, echoed Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

Wednesday’s decision seemed to alter campaign finance law in subtle but important ways, notably by limiting how the government can justify laws said to restrict the exercise of First Amendment rights in the form of campaign contributions.

The court’s 88-page decision reflected sharply different visions of the meaning of the First Amendment and the role of government in regulating elections, with the majority deeply skeptical of government efforts to control participation in politics, and the minority saying that such oversight was needed to ensure a functioning democracy.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the overall limits could not survive First Amendment scrutiny. “There is no right in our democracy more basic,” he wrote, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
In a dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the majority opinion a disturbing development that raised the overall contribution ceiling to “the number infinity.”

“If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”
Such oral dissents are rare, and they signal deep disagreements. But Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Breyer noted from the bench that the other side’s arguments were well presented.

Wednesday’s decision did not affect 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.

In his written opinion, Justice Breyer said Wednesday’s decision would allow “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.” He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The ruling, which goes in effect in a matter of weeks, concerned only contributions from individuals. Federal law continues to ban direct contributions by corporations and unions, though they remain free to spend unlimited sums through “super PACs” and similar vehicles.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee. Mr. McCutcheon, who had contributed a total of about $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle, said he had wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more but was stopped by the overall cap for individuals. The party committee said it wanted to receive contributions above the legal limit for political committees.

In an interview last fall, Mr. McCutcheon said his goal was to encourage the adoption of conservative principles. “To me,” he said, “being a conservative means smaller government and more freedom.”Chief Justice Roberts said the core purpose of the First Amendment was to protect political speech from government interference, even if many people might welcome it.

“They would be delighted to see fewer television commercials touting a candidate’s accomplishments or disparaging an opponent’s character,” he wrote. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so, too, does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. 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.”

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

Chief Justice Roberts said that brief passage on overall limits had to be reconsidered in light of regulatory developments and other factors. But he added that the Buckley decision’s general structure remained intact. “We see no need,” he said, “to revisit Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures.”

The chief justice said that while the $2,600 base limits were also intact, the overall caps placed an unacceptable burden on “an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.”

“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,” he wrote.

So is this going to make quid pro quo easier to prove or less so? It is already statistically proven by two top colleges that candidates are…
Leveling the playing field is not an acceptable interest for the government, Chief Justice Roberts said. Nor is “the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties,” he added, quoting Citizens United.

The only acceptable justification, he said, was rooting out “quid pro quo corruption” or the appearance of it.
Justice Breyer said that analysis was too narrow. “The anticorruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest than the plurality acknowledges,” he wrote. “It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions.”

“Where enough money calls the tune,” he wrote, “the general public will not be heard.”

The Roberts court has been consistently hostile to campaign finance limits. In a half-dozen earlier cases, the five more conservative justices have voted together, though Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. have sometimes taken a more incremental approach than the bolder one called for by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

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

“The existing aggregate limits may in fact encourage the movement of money away from entities subject to disclosure,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “Because individuals’ direct contributions are limited, would-be donors may turn to other avenues for political speech.” He was joined by Justices Alito, Kennedy and Scalia. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.

The main opinions spent many pages arguing over the possibility that the basic limits could be circumvented without the overall caps. Justice Breyer gave detailed examples, which Chief Justice Roberts dismissed as speculative and highly implausible. The chief justice added that Congress could address some perceived loopholes through earmark requirements, transfer restrictions, segregated accounts and mandated disclosure, though he did not say that those efforts would pass constitutional muster.

Justice Breyer said there was little hope that regulators would vigorously enforce even the existing limits.

More broadly, he said the decision was one “that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”

(Publicado originalmente en el New York Times el 2 de abril de 2014).