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Supreme Court cites changed political landscape in decision lifting campaign finance limit

April 2, 2014 at 6:06 PM EDT
The Supreme Court struck down overall limits on political contributions, meaning individuals are now allowed to give the maximum contribution to as many candidates or political committees as they wish. The Court was split in a 5-4 decision, with the liberal justices dissenting. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal joins Judy Woodruff to offer some background on the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Supreme Court today struck down a key provision of the federal campaign finance law. Wealthy donors can now contribute to an unlimited number of candidates and political committees. The vote was 5-4 in favor of eliminating the current cap on total contributions. The ruling didn’t affect how much an individual can give to any one candidate.

For more on today’s decision, we turn to Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.”  She was in the courtroom this morning.

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marcia, what was the court asked to decide here? What was this case about?

MARCIA COYLE: The court basically was asked to decide whether the total cap on what an individual can contribute to a candidate or political committees and parties in a two-year election cycle is still essentially justified by the government’s legitimate interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.

The court back in 1976, Judy, upheld that limit. And, today, the case that the court decided was brought by a Republican businessman was Alabama and the Republican National Committee, who argued that the cap was no longer serving that government interest, and since it didn’t, it was violating the First Amendment speech rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us a little bit more. What was the argument that the majority made? And this was through the chief justice, John Roberts.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How are they interpreting the Constitution differently now from the way they have done in the past?

MARCIA COYLE: The chief justice said the government has really one legitimate interest in restricting money in elections, and that is to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.

The government argued that this total cap serves that interest because it prevented circumvention of the base limits. And that’s the limit on what an individual can contribute in one election. So the chief justice examined whether that actually is true. Does it still today prevent circumvention of those base limits?

And he went through the government’s scenarios as to how that actually works, and he ultimately concluded that those scenarios already are illegal under current law, or, as he said, divorced from reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, he is saying circumstances have changed between back then, Buckley vs. Valeo, and today.


The landscape had changed. He said there are anti-circumvention measures in place. And also he says there is a very intricate regulatory system that the Federal Elections Commission has enacted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is a 5-4 decision, the conservatives on one side, the liberals on the other. The liberals dissented strongly, and it was Justice Stephen Breyer who spoke.


In fact, he read a summary of his dissent from the bench, which is always an indication of how strongly the dissenters feel. And he said — first of all, he said the court was — the majority was making a decision based on its own reading of the facts. There was no lower court record here showing how this actually worked in campaigns.

Secondly, and most importantly, I think, he said the court read the definition of corruption too narrowly. Back in Citizens United, the court did narrow the definition of corruption. The majority there said it is only quid pro quo corruption, something akin to a bribe.

The court said that the possibility that spending large amounts might give a donor influence over or access to an elected official doesn’t give rise to corruption. Justice Breyer said, no, that’s too narrow. There’s another interest here, and that is the interest in protecting the integrity of our political governmental institutions.

And he said where money speaks enough, the public’s voice will not be heard. And that is a concern, he said, the Congress has, a legitimate concern, in worrying about large money donations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you and I were talking before we went on the air that you are saying this is just the latest in another example of how one-half of the court sees money in politics very differently from the other half.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s true.

The First Amendment does look at political speech as at its core of protections. The conservatives on the court feel that there’s a strong liberty interest here, more speech, the better. They are not saying money equals speech, but money facilitates speech, more speech, the better.

The more liberal members say, yes, but there’s also an equality concern here. There has to be some regulation of speech in order that the few don’t drown out the money, or the very few wealthy don’t drown out the many.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, Marcia, as we pointed out, there are still limits on how much can be given to one candidate. Any hint today about whether that limit could move, could be removed?

MARCIA COYLE: The chief justice said that the decision doesn’t affect those limits.

Now, you may talk to some experts who feel that this decision may provide some firepower to challenge those other limits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great to have you again.