The Supreme Court looked set to at least partially strike down certain limits on political donations during a crucial case on campaign finance Tuesday.
The justices split largely along ideological lines as they heard oral arguments. At issue was a challenge to aggregate campaign limits — caps on how much one person can donate in total, across all of the candidates and party committees he or she supports.
Chief Justice John Roberts could hold the deciding vote in the case. Although his questions were skeptical of aggregate limits, he also appeared to be looking for ways to circumscribe the scope of a ruling.
Limiting the total amount a person can donate in one election cycle “seems to me a very direct restriction” even on small contributions, Roberts said.
President Obama weighed in on the case during a news conference Tuesday afternoon, arguing that wealthy “extremists” have too much power to push politics toward their own interests.
“What it means is ordinary Americans are shut out of the process,” Obama said. “And Democrats aren’t entirely innocent of this in the past.”
Individuals can currently donate roughly $123,000 per election cycle to candidates and official party committees. The Republican National Committee and a wealthy Republican donor, Shaun McCutcheon, want the court to eliminate that cap, allowing individual contributions to total as much as $3.5 million.
Justice Elena Kagan led the court’s traditionally liberal wing in an aggressive defense of aggregate limits, arguing that removing the cap would open the door for corruption and give wealthy donors outsized influence in Congress.
“Now, having written a check for $3.5 million or so to a single party’s candidates, are you suggesting that that party and the members of that party are not going to owe me anything, that I won’t get any special treatment? … You give $3.5 million, you get a very, very special place at the table,” Kagan said.
The court’s conservative members brushed aside warnings about corruption, suggesting that removing limits on contributions to candidates and parties would not make much difference to candidates who can receive nearly unlimited support from independent groups such as super-PACs.
“When you add all that up, I don’t think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money,” Justice Antonin Scalia said.
Similarly, Justice Samuel Alito said the Justice Department had presented only “wild hypotheticals” about the risk of high-dollar donations corrupting elected officials.
Congress passed aggregate limits in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and the Supreme Court upheld them in 1976.
Aggregate limits were designed to prevent parties from circumventing the cap on contributions to specific candidates, and to avoid even the appearance of corruption in politics.
But the RNC and McCutcheon said aggregate limits are not needed to achieve those goals, and that they are encroaching on McCutcheon’s right to political speech.
“These limits simply seek to prevent individuals from engaging in too much First Amendment activity,” said Erin Murphy, McCutcheon’s attorney.
Tuesday’s case does not affect the limit on how much an individual can donate to one candidate. The limit is $2,600 for the current election cycle.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed a brief urging the court to strike down aggregate limits using a rationale that would make other campaign finance restrictions harder to defend in the future.
“You’re diminishing his right to associate and the intensity of his association by applying this aggregate limit,» said Bobby Burchfield, the lawyer who represented McConnell before the Supreme Court.
McConnell attended the oral argument Tuesday.
In addition to striking down aggregate limits, Burchfield argued, the court should apply a heightened standard to all campaign finance laws, making them less likely to survive future legal challenges.
Roberts, who asked relatively few questions during the hour-long argument, said he was sympathetic to concerns that lifting aggregate limits could give rise to multi-million-dollar contributions.
But the limits also cut off donors who want to make the maximum contribution to only a few more candidates, Roberts said. A donor could contribute to nine House candidates before hitting the aggregate cap, for example, but might support 10 candidates.
“You are telling him that he can’t make that contribution, however modest — certainly within the limits Congress has said does not present the problem of corruption — to a 10th candidate,” Roberts said.
The case has been described as a sequel to the court’s landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010, which allowed unlimited political spending by outside groups.
Some conservative justices suggested that as long as those floodgates are open, aggregate limits only serve to divert money away from political parties and toward outside groups.
“Big money can be in politics. The thing is you can’t give it to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, but you can start your own PAC. That’s perfectly good,” Scalia said. “I’m not sure that that’s a benefit to our political system.”
Updated at 8:32 p.m.