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Campaign donation issue reopened

Giving itself the option of changing its mind on government power to limit campaign contributions, the Supreme Court on Tuesday set the stage for review of the constitutionality of a specific donation ceiling set by federal law, but a larger issue looms in the background   Since the Court’s landmark opinion in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, it has always given government more leeway to control contributions to candidates or political organizations than over spending by candidates or by independent political activists.  That differing constitutional treatment potentially is at stake in the new case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (docket 12-536).

That was one of two cases the Court on Tuesday accepted for review, with both expected to be argued and decided at the Justices’ next Term, starting in October.  The second new case is Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp. (12-417), testing workers’ right to be paid for the time that it takes to change into safety or other special clothing needed at work.  The issue arises under the federal wage-and-hour law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.  The Court limited its review to the meaning of one phrase in that law, “changing clothes.”  Federal law specifies that an employer need not pay for time spent “changing clothes” if that time is excluded under a valid contract with a labor union.

And, once again, the Justices asked for the federal government’s views on the property rights of members of the Oneida Indian Nation, in upstate New York.  The Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled repeatedly on legal wrangling between tribal members and local and state governments in New York, but new variations of that dispute regularly arise.  This time, though, the Court sought the views of the U.S. Solicitor General on a far more basic issue: have the Oneidas lost their reservation entirely, and with it forfeited a substantial part of their legal rights as Indians.  There is no deadline for the Solicitor General to offer views on the case of Madison and Oneida Counties v. Oneida Indian Nation (12-604).

By reopening the continuing national controversy over campaign finance, in the aftermath of a presidential campaign in which vast sums of money were given and spent, the Court did not promise explicitly that it would reconsider its decision in the Buckley case.  What is at stake directly is the constitutionality of the two-year ceilings that federal law sets on what an individual can give during a campaign for the presidency or Congress, in donations to candidates, to political parties, or to other political committees.

However, the challengers to the two-year caps have argued in their appeal that, if those ceilings are found to survive the analysis of contributions limits in the Buckley decision, then the Supreme Court should reconsider that distinction and strike it down.  The 1976 ruling found that government had greater power to limit contributions than spending, because donations had more potential to corrupt the political process.  The anti-corruption rationale, however, has been weakened by the Court since then.

The challengers in the new case are Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama political activist and businessman who regularly gives money to Republican candidates and causes, and the Republican National Committee.   He wants to give more than the ceilings allow, and the RNC wants to be allowed to accept higher donations.

The current Supreme Court has shown in recent years that it is not averse to the idea of reconsidering some of its most important rulings on campaign finance, as it did rather spectacularly in 2010, when it issued the hotly controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, declaring unconstitutional any limit on spending during federal campaigns by corporations or labor unions, so long as they spent the money independently of a candidate or candidate organization.  That was a spending, not a contribution, decision.  The new McCutcheon case is only about contributions.

So far, the current Court has given no indication that it is ready to reconsider the distinction drawn in the Buckley case, but that has not deterred challengers to campaign finance restrictions from repeatedly attempting to raise the issue anew.  That is what McCutcheon and the RNC seek to do.

After taking into account adjustments for inflation, federal law set dollar ceilings for the 2011-2012 campaign season at $2,500 per election (primary and general elections are treated separately) to any candidate or a candidate’s campaign organization, no more than $30,800 per year to a national political party, no more than $10,000 per year to a state political party, and no more than $5,000 to any other political committee.   The two-year ceiling for that same period — and this is what the new appeal is challenging — is set at $117,000 overall.  That is broken down into $46,200 to a candidate for federal office and $70,800 to non-candidate entities, including national political parties and state political parties, and non-party committees.   That second amount was restricted in that no more than $46,200 could be given to a state party or a non-candidate committee.

McCutcheon has said that he is willing to stay within the per-year contribution limits set by law, but he wants to give more than the two-year overall limit   In the 2011-2012 campaign, he wanted to donate to candidates some $8,200 beyond the two-year limit.   Had he done all that he wanted to do in donations to parties or other political entities, his donations would have exceeded the two-year ceiling by $26,200.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Campaign donation issue reopened, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 19, 2013, 12:36 PM),