Supreme Court's rejection of U.S. campaign funding limits opens door for big-money donors

In October, Cornell Woolridge of Windsor Mill, Md., took part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on campaign finance.
In October, Cornell Woolridge of Windsor Mill, Md., took part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on campaign finance.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling Wednesday, striking down limits on the total amount wealthy individuals can give to federal candidates in an election cycle, means more money in a political system already awash in it.

But it may also mean more transparency, because the extra money will flow to politicians who have to reveal where it came from.

Four years after the court opened the door to unlimited political spending with its Citizens United decision, “it is much better to rewrite the balance and let accountable institutions -- parties and candidates -- compete with shadowy groups” like so-called social-welfare organizations and the umbrella groups known as super PACs, said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor.

Other observers were less hopeful.

’’It might mean strengthening political parties, because more money will flow to party leaders,” said Richard Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor and commentator on election law. But he said the court not only made it easier to funnel big contributions to candidates, it also signaled “all contribution limits are vulnerable,” including the surviving limits on donations to individual campaigns.

The ruling was the latest in a series by a conservative majority to overturn campaign finance regulations as a violation of free speech -- the basis of Citizens United, which allowed corporations to use their treasuries to support or oppose federal candidates.

Wednesday’s ruling invalidated a law that had imposed a $123,200 ceiling on donations by any individual to multiple federal candidates, parties and political action committees during a two-year election cycle. The court had upheld that law in 1976 but said Wednesday that it unduly limited free expression.

’’The First Amendment safeguards an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political associations,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion. “When an individual contributes money to a candidate, he exercises both of those rights.”

Federal law still restricts donations to a single candidate -- to $2,600 each in the primary and general elections -- so the aggregate contribution ceiling serves as an arbitrary limit on how many candidates an individual donor can support, imposing a “special burden on broader participation in the democratic process,” Roberts said.

The ruling allows individuals to contribute up to $3.6 million in a two-year federal election cycle, if they make the maximum allowable donation to every congressional race and to parties and political action committees.

The Obama administration and others supporting the challenged law argued that its repeal would allow candidates and wealthy donors to evade the remaining contribution limits by funneling money through parties and PACs. But Roberts said campaign disclosure laws, and restrictions Congress could place on transferring funds to candidates, were adequate safeguards.

That was disputed by the court’s more liberal justices in a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer. Outlining a scenario in which a single contributor could direct as much as $2.37 million to a candidate through political committees, Breyer said Wednesday’s ruling “undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”

The central issue in the case was whether an aggregate limit on an individual’s campaign contributions protects the system against “corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the sole legal basis the court has recognized to justify restrictions on campaign financing. Roberts said the term refers only to protections against outright bribery -- exchanging money for political favors -- and not to efforts to limit the influence of wealthy donors.

’’Constituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns,” and to expect the recipients to be “responsive” once in office, the chief justice said.

But Breyer said the court, and Congress in imposing the limits, have long recognized the potentially corrupting influence of big campaign contributions.

’’Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard,” he said.

Hasen said the majority has adopted a narrow definition of corruption that could topple other campaign finance laws and make it easier to buy political influence. Referring to the corruption charges filed last week against state Sen. Leland Yee, Hasen said, “In the future you won’t have to break the law to take big money from donors.”

But Persily said the legal battle to keep money out of politics has already been lost. Advocates will have to try to limit the damage through such measures as stronger disclosure laws and more public funding of campaigns, the Stanford professor said.

Supporters of campaign finance restrictions bemoaned the ruling.

It is “Citizens United round two, further opening the floodgates for the nation’s wealthiest few to drown out the voices of the rest of us,” said Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised the decision. “Freedom of speech is being upheld,” he said.

Locally, the ruling appears likely to invalidate a similar ordinance approved by San Francisco voters in 2000. It limits an individual’s total contributions in a city election to $500 times the number of offices on the ballot.

No such limit exists in California law, only restrictions on the amount any individual or company can give to a single candidate. That system offers a disturbing preview of the national scene after the ruling, said Daniel Newman, president of Maplight, a Bay Area organization that tracks money and influence in politics.

’’You see it in the influence in Sacramento of the wealthiest industries and interest groups,” Newman said. He said by allowing major donors to take part in more campaigns nationwide, the ruling would also fuel out-of-state funding for primary-election challenges to members of California’s congressional delegation.

Many major donors will also be unhappy, said Wade Randlett, a San Francisco Democrat who has raised millions of dollars in the Silicon Valley for President Obama and his party.

In the past, he said, contributors could tell fundraisers that they’d already reached their aggregate limit, and “you’re relieved that all the calls will stop until November.”

’’Now (your) only tactic is to disconnect your phone and hide in the dark.”