Conservative Justices Weigh Striking Contribution Limits

October 8, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

As was widely expected the Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared sympathetic to a wealthy businessman’s complaint about federal restrictions on overall contributions individuals can give directly to candidates. The limits described as aggregate limits are intended to prevent corruption of democracy.

But Alabama businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, and the Republican National Committee are urging the high court to set aside such limits, saying they subvert free speech rights. McCutcheon told The Times last week that Americans need to spend more, not less on politics. But in reality only a tiny few have the resources to spend the kind of money McCutcheon has and wants to on politics.

Nevertheless, the conservative justices, especially Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, showed little confidence in U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s argument that aggregate contribution limits, help prevent corruption of democracy.

“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 corruptions would be overwhelming,” Verrilli said during oral argument in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

Later, Verrilli acknowledged that the aggregate limits might restrict an individual like McCutcheon from making direct contributions to a certain number of candidates. But that limit Verrilli continued would not stifle McCutcheon’s First Amendment rights. For he could still funnel money into groups that help advance those candidates. “Mr. McCutcheon,” Verrilli said, “can spend as much of his considerable fortune as he wants on independent expenditures advocating for the election of these candidates.”

If the conservative justices vote to erase or greatly weaken limits on overall contributions, it would as The New York Times Adam Liptak notes “represent a fundamental reassessment of a basic distinction in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, which said contributions may be regulated more strictly than expenditures because of their potential for corruption.”

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a press statement that if the contribution limits are invalidated in McCutcheon “we are bound to see the $1 million and $2 million contributions that would be permitted by such a decision used by influence-seeking donors to corrupt government decisions.”

He urged the high court to “not empower the wealthy few to buy the government that belongs to all Americans by striking down longstanding contribution limits that protect citizens against corruption.”