Limits on federal election campaign contributions that have stood for nearly 40 years appear ready to fall unless Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts rescues them, as he did President Obama’s health care law. That’s the growing assessment of legal experts on the left and right who are gearing up for the first big case of the high court’s 2013 term, one that could fortify the Roberts court’s opposition to restrictions on campaign spending. Three years after their blockbuster decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions, the justices are being asked to eliminate the ceiling on what wealthy donors can contribute to federal candidates, parties and political action committees. Limits on each donation would be retained, but donors would be allowed to make as many as they like. The case pits the First Amendment’s freedom of speech against the government’s interest in stopping political corruption — and Roberts, more than any of his colleagues, is the man in the middle. He has ruled five times in a row against restrictions on political speech, but unlike several of his conservative colleagues, he has not debunked limits on federal contributions.
“This court has long recognized the governmental interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption in election campaigns,” Roberts said in his 2007 majority opinion in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life. Four years later in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, he noted that “the interest in alleviating the corrupting influence of large contributions is served by … contribution limitations.”
On the other hand, the chief justice noted in the 2007 case that the First Amendment remains paramount. “When it comes to drawing difficult lines in the area of pure political speech between what is protected and what the government may ban, it is worth recalling the language we are applying,” he said — that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”
No other justice is being watched as closely in the upcoming case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which asks the court to strike down “aggregate” limits on a donor’s federal contributions — currently $123,200 over two years, divided among candidates, parties and PACs.
Full Article: Chief Justice Roberts holds key in campaign-finance case.