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Supreme Court Takes Campaign Finance Case, Will Rule On Contribution Limits

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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a case challenging the per-biennial cycle limit on campaign contributions from individuals.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, argues that the limit on what individuals are allowed to give candidates ($46,200 per two-year cycle) and parties and PACs ($70,800 per two-year cycle) is an unconstitutional violation of the individual donor's free speech rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals already ruled in favor of keeping the biennial limits, which have been in place since 1971 and were upheld in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case. By accepting the case, the Supreme Court is stepping into the thick of another controversial campaign finance case just three years after ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and unions can spend freely on elections.

If the court rules against the two-year limits, it would mark the first time a court has overturned a part of the landmark Buckley ruling that deals with campaign contribution limits. This is not terribly surprising as the court has been hostile to campaign finance laws ever since Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a supporter of campaign finance regulation, was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, a member of the court's conservative bloc who is opposed to campaign regulation.

Campaign finance reformers are already calling on the court to maintain the Buckley precedent and rule against the challenge in McCutcheon, for fear that any overturning of Buckley will eventually lead to future erosion of contribution limits and other campaign finance precedents meant to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption.

"If the Supreme Court reverses its past ruling in Buckley, the Court would do extraordinary damage to the nation’s ability to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions," Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said in a statement. "It would also represent the first time in history that the Court declared a federal contribution limit unconstitutional."

"In agreeing to hear the McCutcheon case, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to defend common sense limits on how much influence wealthy special interests can buy in Washington," Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, said in a statement. "In recent decisions, the Court has too often sided with big donors and against our democracy. It's time for the Court to stand up for the voices of everyday people and uphold the limits."

A ruling to overturn the biennial limits would not directly affect the amount an individual donor could give to a single candidate, but, thanks to the proliferation of joint fundraising committees, known as victory funds or committees, a candidate could potentially solicit a single contribution from one donor of up to -- if not more than -- $3,627,600.

This could work if, say, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) or President Barack Obama expanded their respective victory fund to distribute donations to all 435 House candidates and all 33 Senate candidates ($2,433,600 per two-year cycle), each federal party committee ($97,200 per year) and all 50 state party committees ($500,000 per year).

The expanded victory fund case presents to most obvious way that a ruling in favor of repealing the limits could immediately affect campaign fundraising. Still, the greater worry is how a ruling against limits could affect future cases.

University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen wrote for Election Law Blog that the case has broader implications. "Striking part of the Buckley edifice could mean that more will fall," Hasen wrote, "and that the Court’s general skepticism toward the constitutionality of limits already in play in the independent spending area could spread to contribution limits."

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