Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala., the national Republican Party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky want the court to overturn the overall limits for individuals’ spending — $123,200, including a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates, for 2013 and 2014. McCutcheon and McConnell attended Tuesday’s argument, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who supports the limits.
The limit on individual contributions to any single candidate for Congress in any given election, currently $2,600, is not at issue in the case.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the Obama administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, struggled to persuade conservative justices who are skeptical of campaign finance laws that the overall limits serve as a check on corruption. Without them, Verrilli said, donors could write checks of more than $3.5 million and noted that non-presidential election cycles cost a political party and its candidates roughly $1.5 billion.
Absent limits, “less than 500 people can fund the whole shootin’ match,” Verrilli said.
But Justice Antonin Scalia said that in an era of unlimited independent spending brought on by Citizens United, “I don’t think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money.”
Scalia said Verrilli’s fears were overstated. The court already has held that “enormous amounts of money” spent in support of a member of Congress’ re-election is not a problem, he said.
At one point, Justice Elena Kagan, who stood in Verrilli’s place and was on the losing end of the Citizens United case, joked, “I suppose that if this court is having second thoughts about its rulings that independent expenditures are not corrupting, we could change that part of the law.”
Two other members of the Citizens United majority, Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, also questioned Verrilli’s argument. Justice Clarence Thomas, who asked no questions as is his custom, has long opposed campaign money limits.