The Supreme Court

Paying for Campaigns

Campaign financing laws can be another critical issue that frequently makes it to the Supreme Court. In fact, a major case whose ruling was announced December 10, 2003, the Supreme Court upheld two key components of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, which was ruled at least partially unconstitutional in a convoluted decision by the federal district court earlier in the year. The Supreme Court heard that case in September 2003. The December ruling was decided on a split decision of 5 to 4 and upheld provisions that restricted “soft money” donations and advertising placed with this money just before elections. Prior to this law, major corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals could write a large check without limits to campaigns using what was known as “soft money” contributions. McCain-Feingold restricted these donations and the Court upheld those restrictions. Challengers to the law claimed this was a violation of the free speech provisions of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the law's provisions that restrict the use of “soft money” 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a national election are constitutional. In writing for the majority, Justices Stevens and O'Connor said:

“Just as troubling to a functioning democracy as classic quid pro quo corruption is the danger that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder. Even if it occurs only occasionally, the potential for such undue influence is manifest. And unlike straight cash-for-votes transactions, such corruption is neither easily detected nor practical to criminalize. The best means of prevention is to identify and to remove the temptation. The evidence set forth above, which is but a sampling of the reams of disquieting evidence contained in the record, convincingly demonstrates that soft-money contributions to political parties carry with them just such temptation.”

Prior to this case, the most recent landmark ruling on campaign financing was Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. In an attempt to clean up the mess after the Watergate affair, Congress passed a law to deal with corruption in political campaigns by restricting financial contributions to candidates and how the money raised is spent. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 included among its provisions an attempt to limit the amount of money an individual could contribute to a single campaign to $1,000 and a total of $25,000 to all federal candidates. Candidates and their immediate families were limited to contributions of $50,000 for presidential and vice presidential candidates, $35,000 for Senate candidates and $25,000 for House candidates. The act also required the reporting of contributions above $100. Contributions above $5,000 had to be reported within 48 hours of receipt. The act also created the Federal Election Commission.

Court Connotations

The Federal Election Commission administers and enforces the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)—the statute that governs the financing of federal elections. Its duties include the disclosure of campaign finance information and the enforcement of the FECA related to limits and prohibitions on contributions. It also oversees the public funding of presidential elections.

In addition to the contribution limits, the law also specified spending limits. The class action suit was brought to question whether the First Amendments guarantees of freedom of speech and association were limited by this new law. The Supreme Court upheld the part of the law related to funding limits, but overturned the part of the law related to spending limits.

The Supreme Court found that restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment because these limits enhanced the “integrity of our system of representative democracy” by guarding against unscrupulous practices. The provisions of the law that restricted independent expenditures in campaigns, the limits on expenditures by candidates from their own personal or family resources, and the limits on total campaign expenditures were found by the Court to violate the First Amendment. The Court held that these practices do not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption that individual contributions to candidates do. In addition, the Court found that restricting these expenses did not serve a government interest great enough to warrant a curtailment on free speech and association.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


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