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October 9, 2013

Court wary of campaign contribution limits

Supreme Court appeared ready to free big donors to give more money.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to free big individual donors to give more money to political candidates in the court’s first major campaign finance case since the justices took the lid off of independent spending in 2010.

The court’s conservative justices, who formed the majority in 2010’s Citizens United case, voiced varying degrees of skepticism about the limits on what individuals may give candidates, political parties and political action committees in a two-year federal election cycle.

The argument in a packed courtroom that included members of Congress gave supporters of stringent campaign finance regulations little reason for optimism that the court would sustain limits that were enacted 40 years ago in response to Watergate-era abuses. The caps were intended to reduce the potential for political corruption.

Chief Justice John Roberts, possibly the pivotal vote in the case, said that telling an individual he can give the legal maximum of $2,600 per election to only a handful of candidates for Congress “seems to me a very direct restriction” on First Amendment rights.

Roberts seemed less critical of the overall limits as they applied to the political parties, and he said nothing to suggest he would support an outcome that would call into question all contribution limits, including on what one contributor may give one candidate.

The Supreme Court first upheld contribution limits in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, accepting the anti-corruption rationale. In Citizens United, the court said that spending that is independent of campaigns poses no risk of corruption, no matter how large.

Tuesday’s case was in part about how to reconcile those holdings.

President Barack Obama, who criticized the Citizens United ruling in his State of the Union speech in 2010, said Tuesday the current case has the potential to “go even further than Citizens United” if the court should undermine all contribution limits. “I mean, essentially, it would say anything goes; there are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns,” Obama said at a news conference he called to address the stalemate over the federal budget.

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