What SCOTUS Just Ruled on Campaign Finance

What SCOTUS Just Ruled on Campaign Finance

Here's a "too long, didn't read" summary of the 94-page document:

The question was whether the government could restrict the total amount of money an individual can donate to candidates, parties, and PACs. This is distinct from how much an individual can donate to each candidate, limits on which remain in place, and from how much corporations can spend on political speech independently of official campaigns, which was addressed in Citizens United.

In a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court invalidated the overall limit, which this year amounted to $123,200 (with sub-limits as to how much can go to candidates vs. parties and PACs).

The majority's reasoning traces back to the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo, which held that, while there is a First Amendment right to spend money on political activities, the government is justified in limiting donations to political candidates to prevent "the reality or appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions."

The majority -- the conservative justices plus Anthony Kennedy -- essentially decided that the corruption rationale doesn't apply to an overall donation cap (citations removed):

This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. Moreoever, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. 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 quid pro quo corruption.

Right now it's legal to donate up to $5,200 to a candidate over two years. The justices found it "difficult to understand" why Congress would abruptly ban these acceptable donations once an individual has made a certain number of them.

The justices were not convinced by the argument that a large number of small donations could be rerouted to a single candidate. This concern had led the court to allow an overall limit in Buckley, but that decision spent very little time on the matter, and laws against circumventing donation limits have been strenghtened since then. The justices found that the "scenarios offered in support of that possibility are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or implausible."

They also found unpersuasive the claim that, to exercise a First Amendment right to donate to a large number of candidates, an individual could simply give less money to each: "To require one person to contribute at lower levels than others because he wants to support more candidates or causes is to impose a special burden on broader participation in the democratic process."

Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion arguing that Buckley should be discarded entirely.

In their dissent, the liberal justices (with Stephen Breyer writing) accused the majority of "eviscerat[ing] our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."

The liberal wing found the majority's definition of corruption far too narrow, arguing that it should include "undue influence" and not just quid pro quo corruption. The dissent provides an alternative reading of the court's prior cases in which this has been the court's thinking all along, as well as testimony supporting the idea that large overall donors receive special treatment.

The liberal justices further argued that "donors can and likely will find ways to channel millions of dollars to parties and to individual candidates," and spelled out three possible ways: maxing out donations to the parties' various national and state committees; maxing out donations to every candidate and committee but then having those entities funnel the money to a single candidate; and creating more PACs (each of which would create another donation opportunity for every donor). One example of the third scenario has ten donors taking $2 million apiece, spreading it out among 200 different PACs, and then having the PACs direct all the money to just ten candidates.

These are among the scenarios the majority found illegal or implausible. So, both sides have placed their bets as to how things will unfold from here.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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