In a new test of campaign donors’ free-speech rights, the Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will consider a case challenging the limit on how much individuals are allowed to donate to federal candidates and political parties.
The high court agreed to hear a case brought by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee, who seek to do away with the $123,200 aggregate limit that an individual can donate directly in a two-year election cycle to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees. They argue that the limit violates a donor’s right to free speech under the First Amendment and hurts a candidate’s ability to compete in a new era of unrestricted campaign spending by independent groups.
Mr. McCutcheon said he accepts that he can give only $2,500 to a single candidate, but he contends he should be able to give that amount to as many GOP candidates as he wants.
Although the case involves the relatively narrow question of the two-year limit on donations, some legal analysts said the court’s ruling next year could have broader implications by re-examining the standard it set in the Buckley case in 1976. At the time, the justices said government could impose limits on the “speech” of campaign donations.
“If that rule goes away, that could arguably open the door to do away with contribution limits, as well as the corporate contribution ban and everything else,” said Stefan Passantino, a campaign law specialist at McKenna, Long & Aldridge in Washington. “There’s the potential here for the court to open up contribution limits wholesale.”
The case will be considered in the court’s next term, which begins in October.
The move comes three years after the court’s Citizens United decision — sharply criticized by President Obama at the time — ended the restrictions on corporate and union donations to independent, third-party groups who want to influence congressional or presidential elections.
Under current law, individuals may give no more than $123,200 for each two-year election cycle directly to candidates or parties. That includes a $2,500 limit for a candidate running for federal office, and $30,800 per year to the national parties’ political committees.
Last year, a three-judge federal appeals court in Washington upheld the limits on the grounds that the Supreme Court has consistently said that contributions to candidates can be restricted.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said the new case has “enormous consequences for the country.”
“If the Supreme Court reverses its past ruling in Buckley, the court would do extraordinary damage to the nation’s ability to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions,” Mr. Wertheimer said. “It would also represent the first time in history that the court declared a federal contribution limit unconstitutional.”
Advocates of stricter campaign-finance regulations were disappointed that President Obama didn’t mention the subject last week in his State of the Union address. Before he was elected president, Mr. Obama supported tighter regulations on campaign donations, and he chastised the justices to their faces in his 2010 State of the Union speech over the Citizens United ruling.
Since then, the president has not made a push for any new campaign finance law. Instead, last week he created a commission to investigate voting rights issues such as long lines at the polls on Election Day.