In a move that could signal the end of a key restriction on political giving, the Supreme Court said Tuesday that it will consider a case challenging the limit on how much individuals can donate directly to federal candidates and political parties.
The court's action comes three years after its Citizens United decision ended the ban on corporation donations to independent groups seeking to elect or defeat presidential and congressional candidates.
That decision kept in place a 106-year-old ban on corporations giving directly to federal candidates. But it helped pave the way for a proliferation of deep-pocketed super PACs that can spend unlimited amounts of corporate and union money in federal contests, as long as they operate independently of candidates.
The case, brought by an Alabama businessman and the Republican National Committee, seeks to do away with the aggregate limit on how much an individual can donate directly to candidates and parties. Currently, an individual cannot donate more than $123,200 to all federal candidates, parties and traditional political action committees during a two-year-election cycle.
Lawyers for Shaun McCutcheon, the Alabama businessman and a GOP activist, argue those limits violate donors' free-speech rights and severely restrict the ability of candidates and parties to compete in an age of free-for-all spending by super PACs and political non-profit groups.
"In a rational universe, you wouldn't want candidates and parties to become bit players in elections," said Indiana lawyer Jim Bopp, the lead counsel in the McCutcheon case and an architect of the legal challenge that led to the court's Citizens United decision. "You want their voices to be heard."
Groups that favor restrictions on political giving say ending the cap on aggregate donations could allow a single individual to pump millions into the campaign bank accounts of parties and candidates' and give a wealthy few undue influence over government policymakers and their decisions.
"It will allow individual donors to directly buy corrupting influence with a president or House speaker or any other officeholder," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance watchdog group.
Dismantling the federal limit also could cast doubt on state laws around the country. In New York, for instance, an individual cannot contribute more than $150,000 to candidates and political committees in the Empire State.
Experts are watching the McCutcheon case closely because it marks the first time since the Citizens United ruling that the court will weigh in on the constitutionality of direct contributions.
"The court has seemed skeptical of restrictions on political speech," said Larry Norton, an election-law expert in Washington and a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. "Any campaign-finance restriction that gets heard by the Supreme Court right now is vulnerable."
The case will be considered during the court's next term, which starts in October.
The justices did not announce Tuesday whether they will take up another closely watched case, challenging the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates and political parties.
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