Daily Dispatches
Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon
Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh
Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon

Did the Supreme Court open the door to free speech or corruption?

Supreme Court

Last week, President Barack Obama denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s relaxing of campaign contribution limits on his way to a $32,000-a-plate fundraiser in Chicago. Though Obama and other Democrats have condemned the decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the ruling deals with just one narrow aspect of campaign contributions. The court took away the limit on the number of political candidates to whom a donor can give, but the limit on how much a person can donate to an individual candidate remains.

Plaintiff Shawn McCutcheon wanted to give money to more candidates than the law allowed. He could contribute the maximum legal amount to nine candidates, but not a 10th because of the aggregate cap rule.

Chief Justice John Roberts defined the issue this way: “The concern is you have somebody who is very interested, say, in environmental regulation and very interested in gun control. The current system, the way the anti-aggregation system works, is he’s got to choose. Is he going to express his belief in environmental regulation by donating to more than nine people there? Or is he going to choose the gun-control issue?”

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The nine-candidate limit is arbitrary in one sense. But the worldview behind it emphasizes the corrupting influence of campaign money. It’s an evil to be regulated, the impetus behind campaign finance laws to begin with. 

There is tension between stopping corruption—people paying for political favors—and freedom of speech for donors to send dollars to the politicians of their choosing. The majority of the court said restricting how much a donor can give to one candidate protects against buying political favors. There’s an established, compelling government interest in that protection.

But restricting the total amount given to several candidates makes no sense, the court ruled. In the majority opinion, justices jabbed at the media, saying, “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

The dissenting justices—Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Elena Kagan—said the decision eviscerates campaign-finance laws. They called McCutcheon the evil twin to a 2010 campaign-finance decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled against the regulation of corporate donations to candidates. 

Corruption is more than a bribe between a donor and a candidate, the dissenting justices argued. It can come in the form of “privileged access” to and influence upon elected representatives. But many institutions—media, unions, and interest groups, to name a few—can gain privileged access, not just individuals. And no one has offered an example of an individual’s contributions to multiple candidates causing corruption. The government’s case for limiting the number of candidates an individual can support suggested horrible things that might happen. But most states don’t have a cap on total giving, and no horror stories have come from them.

Listen to Mary Reichard’s full legal analysis of the McCutcheon decision on The World and Everything in It:

Lynde Langdon contributed to this report.

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