Conservative Supreme Court Justices Question Campaign Contribution Limits

In the first major campaign finance case since Citizens United in 2010, the Supreme Court today heard a challenge to overall contribution limits imposed on individuals who wish to contribute to federal candidates and committees. The conservative justices questioned some of those limits at arguments.

The case was brought by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who says that the limits violate his free speech rights and serve no anti-corruption role.

McCutcheon says he is willing to abide by individual base limits set by federal law, but wants to be able to contribute, within those base limits, to more candidates.

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Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservatives on the bench expressed skepticism regarding some of the aggregate limits.

Roberts noted that under federal law, a contributor could give $2,600 to nine candidates, but because of the aggregate limits would be barred from donating the same amount to a 10th.

"It seems to me a very direct restriction on much smaller contributions that Congress said do not present a problem with corruption, "Roberts said.

Justice Antonin Scalia said that the overall limits "sap the vitality" of political parties and encourage "drive-by PACs."

Justice Samuel Alito complained about the government's argument that base limits could be circumvented if aggregate limits were struck down. "What I see are wild hypotheticals that are not obviously plausible, and lack any empirical support," he said.

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Erin E. Murphy, and attorney for McCutcheon, told the justices that "by prohibiting contributions that are within the modest base limits, Congress has already imposed to combat the reality or appearance of corruption, these limits simply seek to prevent individuals from engaging in too much First Amendment activity."

Federal law already has provisions in place to block attempts at circumventing limits, she said.

Campaign finance reform advocates watched the case carefully, worried not only about the aggregate limits in the case at hand, but a broad ruling that could mandate a more strict standard of review for all contributions from individuals.

"I don't think there are five votes on the court for the broad proposition that strict scrutiny should apply to all contribution limits," said Elizabeth B. Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a group that supports campaign finance overhaul.

In the area of campaign finance, the Supreme Court has distinguished between limits on expenditures and limits on contributions. In Citizens United, the court struck down independent spending limits for corporations and unions, but it has so far consistently upheld federal contribution limits.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli told the justices that the aggregate limits combat corruption.

"Aggregate limits combat corruption both by blocking circumvention of individual contribution limits and, equally fundamentally, by serving as a bulwark against a campaign finance system dominated by massive individual contributions in which the dangers of quid pro quo corruption would be obvious and inherent and the corrosive appearance of corruption would be overwhelming," he said.

The justices seemed split along ideological lines, but all eyes were on Roberts who is considered a key vote. He seemed especially concerned with finding a way to allow McCutcheon to give to a greater number of candidates.

In the 2012 election cycle, McCutcheon contributed a total of $33,088 in congressional races across the nation. He abided by the base limits set by federal law. Individuals can contribute $2,600 per election to a particular candidate committee and $32,400 to a national party committee.

McCutcheon was blocked from giving money to more candidates by aggregate campaign contribution limits. Those limits in a two year cycle are $48,600 to a candidate committee, and $74,600 to a non-candidate committee.