The U.S. Supreme Court will this week step into the politically charged debate over campaign finance for the first time since its controversial ruling three years ago paved the way for corporations and unions to spend more on political candidates and causes. The case has the potential to weaken a key element of the federal campaign finance regulations remaining after the 2010 ruling, and it could pave the way for challenges to the restrictions on contributions that remain. Supporters say those laws are key to preventing wealthy donors from exerting an undue and potentially corrupting influence on the political process, while opponents say the laws choke free speech. In the 2010 case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court, split 5-4, lifted limits on independent expenditures, not coordinated with individual politicians or parties, by corporations and unions during federal election campaigns. This time, in a case to be argued on Tuesday, the nine justices will consider a challenge by Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee to the overall limit on campaign contributions that donors can make to individual candidates and committees over a two-year federal election cycle.
That the court has agreed to hear the case, and the court’s boldness in the Citizens United ruling, have prompted some legal experts to say there is a good chance the court will strike down the cap.
Oral arguments will proceed on Tuesday regardless of whether the federal government remains shut down, the court has said.
McCutcheon, the owner of an electrical engineering firm outside Birmingham, Alabama, wanted to donate to multiple candidates and political committees but was frustrated when he realized the aggregate cap limited his ability to do so.
In the current two-year election cycle (2013-14), an individual can give $2,600 to a candidate or committee and $32,400 to a political party. But donors cannot exceed the $123,200 overall limit during that period. There is also a $48,600 cap on total donations to candidates and a $74,600 cap on donations to political action committees and parties.
McCutcheon argues that the limits are unconstitutional because they violate the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long held that spending money in the political context is a form of free speech expression, meaning restrictions are subject to careful legal scrutiny.