Free speech won at the Supreme Court today as the court struck down a federal law that limited how much money a person could give to federal candidates and political committees.
Under Supreme Court precedent, the government can only limit campaign contributions if doing so is necessary to prevent quid pro quo corruption – that is, to prevent situations where a politician offers to do something on behalf of a donor in exchange for a campaign contribution – or to prevent the appearance of such corruption.
For example, the court has held that the government can limit how much money an individual can give to any particular candidate because contributions above a certain amount could create the impression that the donor is “buying” official acts. That’s highly questionable, because the First Amendment prohibits any limits on political speech, and campaign contributions are an important form of political speech. But for now, at least, that’s the law under the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo.
Today’s decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, considered whether the government can limit how much money a person can give in one election cycle to all candidates and other political committees combined. (The limit for an individual’s contributions to all candidates for the current election cycle was $48,600.)
The court rightly concluded that such an aggregate limit is not necessary to limit corruption or the appearance of corruption, and therefore is not permissible under the First Amendment. And it’s only logical: if giving the maximum contribution allowed under the law to any one candidate (currently $2,600) is not corrupting with respect to that candidate, then giving the same amount to as many other candidates as you want can’t be corrupting with respect to those candidates, either.
Illinois hasn’t placed aggregate limits on state-level political contributions, so today’s ruling shouldn’t directly affect anything in the Illinois Election Code.
But the court’s opinion did note that limits on campaign contributions are dangerous in general because they enable current officeholders to influence elections, and, as the court put it, “those who govern should be the last people to decide who should govern.” The court also stated, as it has before, that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting contributions “to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”
That doesn’t bode well for Illinois’ campaign finance law, which limits the amount that anyone in Illinois can give to a candidate for state office, except for the state’s political party leaders, who can give as much as they want to their favored candidates. The effect of those limits is not to limit corruption but to increase the party leaders’ power and protect incumbents from challengers.
Illinois’ political leaders know that the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on political speech threaten their power, which is why they’re seeking to repeal the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, however, the Liberty Justice Center is challenging Illinois’ limits in federal court. Today’s decision is an encouraging sign that the courts will ultimately do the right thing: uphold the First Amendment and strike down the Illinois scheme.