Legal scholar argues the Supreme Court is 'killing' the bedrock of campaign finance law — and may soon crush it completely

Legal scholar argues the Supreme Court is 'killing' the bedrock of campaign finance law — and may soon crush it completely
Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

An Alaska law that caps campaign contributions from individuals to candidates at $500 is facing a legal challenge that has made its way to the Supreme Court. While the Ninth Circuit upheld the law, the justices have told the lower court to review the decision again while applying a previous precedent from the case Randall v. Sorrell — a ruling that struck down low limits on campaign contributions.

In a recent post on the Harvard Law Review blog, law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy argued that the Supreme Court appears primed to use the case to severely weaken campaign finance law — and perhaps kill contribution limits altogether.

Reacting to the court's decision to send the Alaska law back to the Ninth Circuit for review, she wrote: "This likely portends the Ninth Circuit reversing itself, or, if it sticks to its guns, then Thompson v. Hebdon may make a round trip to the Court where the Roberts Court would likely reprise the wrongly decided Randall and strike Alaska’s contribution limits, possibly taking with it all states’ contribution limits."

This falls in a pattern of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts pushing to deregulate corruption, as Torres-Spelliscy has argued.

And even the standard that existed before the 2006 Randall ruling was unreasonably strict. Previously, the Supreme Court had ruled in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo that while it was constitutional to limit how much individuals could contribute to campaigns, it was not permissible to limit campaigns' expenditures. Campaign finance reform advocates had been hoping to overturn that precedent, but their hopes were dashed.

Now things could get much worse. And according to Torres-Spelliscy, the Court's apparent justification for seeking to cut down campaign finance laws is at odds with the empirical evidence.

She explained:

The decision in Randall was based in part on the Supreme Court’s assumption that lower contribution limits would hamper electoral competition and especially hurt challengers. But the Supreme Court made this assumption without the benefit of data that tested this empirical point. Post-Randall, I help co-author a study that looked at precisely this issue. The study examined elections in forty-two states over twenty-six years for lower house legislative races. The study showed that lower contribution limits actually boost electoral competition and assist challengers—likely because incumbents were unable to amass as big war chests to either scare off or out-maneuver would-be challengers. Analysis by the National Institute on Money in Politics in 2018 looking at data from Vermont from 2000 to 2016 confirmed that higher contribution limits hurt electoral competitiveness—the opposite of what the Supreme Court assumed in Randall. But in the area of campaign finance, facts have been relegated to an unexamined dusty shelf.

If the Supreme Court takes the route she's expecting, she believes other campaign finance laws will quickly face a wave of new lawsuits from opponents hopeful that the justices will favor their cause.

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