Citizens United 2.0? Supreme Court could kill limits on political donations
Three years after its historic Citizens United decision upended America’s campaign finance system, the Supreme Court appears poised to allow even more cash to flood into US politics.
In one of the most highly anticipated cases of a judicial term that got underway this week, the US high court on Tuesday heard the case of Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy Alabama businessman who wants to make political campaign contributions exceeding the $123,200 allowed by the federal government.
If the court rules in his favor, Americans could see an end to restrictions on campaign contributions by individuals — much as the court did away with them in 2010 for institutions with its Citizens United ruling.
At present, US election laws impose restrictions on the amount an individual can contribute, limiting how much one can give to any single candidate, as well as the aggregate amount of contributions in a given election cycle.
McCutcheon, a Republican, is asking the court to throw out aggregate limits that capped his contributions during the 2011-12 campaign season at $46,200 for candidates and $70,800 for other contributions.
There appeared to be some support to overturn the law, which would require the votes of five of the nine justices, based upon Monday court deliberations.
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the limit on individual contributions has the ability “to sap the vitality from political parties.”
Chief Justice John Roberts said that the donation limit “seems to me a very direct restriction” on Americans’ First Amendment rights — in other words, that political donations are a form of protected speech under the US Constitution.
Steven Schwinn, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago told AFP that the under the stewardship of Roberts, the Supreme Court has tended to side in favor of allowing more money into the political system.
“In cases both big and small, the Roberts court has consistently ruled that state and federal efforts to control the amount of money in politics, or to equalize the campaign finance playing field, violate the First Amendment” of America’s founding document.
The case follows the groundbreaking Citizens United ruling in 2010 — a decision generally hailed by conservatives and decried by liberals — which made it easier for businesses to influence elections through large-scale donations.
In that decision, the high court granted corporations, unions and associations the right to make direct, unlimited and anonymous contributions to election campaigns.
A favorable ruling in favor of McCutcheon would give similar rights to wealthy individuals.
US President Barack Obama is among the most vocal critics of the ruling that has allowed millions of dollars — in mostly unfettered and undisclosed donations — to pour into political campaigns.
Arguing on behalf of the Obama administration, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli warned that lifting the limits would risk creating a government “of, by and for” wealthy donors.
Liberal-leaning Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg echoed that view, arguing that donation limits are a great equalizer in American politics.
“Contribution limits promote free expression and democratic participation,” she said. “It means the little people count.”
“Whose expression is at stake when most people couldn’t even come near the limit?” she added,
Civic groups also worry about the effects of an influx of a new flood of money into an electoral system already awash in donations.
“Our fight will go on; we will not permit the corruption of our government by wealthy individuals,” said Fred Werthermer, president of Democracy 21, an interest group lobbying for campaign finance reform.
Elizabeth Wydra, a counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center think-tank said a court ruling in favor of McCutcheon would be a “historic blunder.”
“If the Court strikes down the aggregate limits, it would be making a mistake along the lines of the historic blunder it committed in Citizens United,” Wydra told AFP.
“These limits provide, as Solicitor General Don Verrilli explained at the start of his argument, a bulwark against the appearance and reality of corruption.”