WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court looked set Tuesday to let individuals give as much money as they want in elections, which President Barack Obama has said could push politics even further into the hands of the rich.
Three years after its historic Citizens United decision upended America’s campaign finance system, the highest court in the land is hearing a case that, if approved, will allow more cash to flood into presidential and other election races.
U.S. laws currently impose restrictions on how much an individual can contribute to any single candidate, as well as the total amount of donations in a given election cycle.
But Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy Alabama businessman wants to make political campaign contributions above the $123,200 allowed by the federal government, and he has challenged the law.
The Republican Party is backing his case. “This is a severe restriction on political speech,” Bobby Burchfield, a lawyer representing Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, told the court, in what is one of the most highly anticipated cases of its term.
If the court rules in McCutcheon’s favor, Americans could see an end to restrictions on contributions by individuals — much as the court did away with them in 2010 for institutions with Citizens United.
McCutcheon 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.
Based on Tuesday’s deliberations, there appears to be significant support to overturn the law — which would require the votes of five of the nine justices.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the donation limit “seems to me a very direct restriction” on Americans’ First Amendment rights — in other words, that such donations are a form of protected speech under the Constitution.
And conservative Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the limit on individual contributions has the ability “to sap the vitality from political parties.”
Obama, speaking at the White House, voiced alarm about the McCutcheon case, noting that such a ruling “would go further than Citizens United, essentially saying anything goes.”
“There aren’t a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way, where you can basically have millionaires and billionaires bankrolling whoever they want, however they want, in some cases undisclosed,” the U.S. president said, noting that both Democrats and Republicans find themselves involved in the campaign finance problem.
“I had to raise a lot of money for my campaign. So there’s nobody who operates in politics that has perfectly clean hands on this issue,” Obama said.
“I continue to believe that Citizens United contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now,” he added, referring to the “big bankroll” for tea party-aligned Republicans in Congress.
Steven Schwinn, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago said that under the stewardship of Roberts, the top court has tended to side in favor of fewer limits on fundraising.
“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, he said.
The Citizens United ruling in 2010 — a decision generally hailed by conservatives and decried by liberals — made it easier for businesses to influence elections through large-scale donations.
As a result, corporations, unions and associations can make direct, unlimited and anonymous contributions to election campaigns.
A favorable ruling in favor of McCutcheon would give similar rights to wealthy individuals.
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 agreed, arguing that donation limits are a great equalizer in American politics, which “promote free expression and democratic participation.”
“It means the little people count,” she said. “Whose expression is at stake when most people couldn’t even come near the limit?” she added.
And Elizabeth Wydra, a lawyer for the Constitutional Accountability Center think tank, said that a ruling in favor of McCutcheon would be a mistake “along the lines of the historic blunder it committed in Citizens United.”
“These limits provide, as Solicitor General Don Verrilli explained at the start of his argument, a bulwark against the appearance and reality of corruption.”