Wealthy political candidates caught a break Thursday as the Supreme Court struck down a campaign finance rule that benefits their opponents.
The court ruled 5-4 that Congress went too far when it loosened fundraising restraints for politicians facing millionaires who invest in their own campaigns. The court's majority declared that the campaign finance double standard violated First Amendment free-speech guarantees.
“The argument that a candidate's speech may be restricted in order to level electoral opportunity has ominous implications because it would permit Congress to arrogate the voters' authority to evaluate the strength of candidates competing for office,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
The decision, arising out of a New York state congressional race, marks the second time in as many years that the court has undercut a 2002 campaign finance law co-authored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The now-diminished law is the signature Capitol Hill accomplishment for McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
Dubbed the “millionaire's amendment,” the provision struck down Thursday was billed as a way to level the campaign funding playing field. It didn't restrict how much money the wealthy candidate could spend.
“The millionaire's amendment does not impose any burden whatsoever on the self-funding candidate's freedom to speak,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent, adding that “it does no more than diminish the unequal strength of the self-funded candidate.”
The opinion, one of the last to be issued by the court for the now-concluded 2007-08 term, broke down along predictable fault lines. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined Alito in striking down the provision. Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Stevens in the main dissent.
Even with the November election months away, the broader consequences of the ruling in Davis v. Federal Election Commission may unfold slowly.
Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who co-authored the overall campaign finance bill with McCain, stressed that the case left intact key elements of the 2002 law, including a ban on so-called “soft money,” unlimited donations – even from corporate and union treasuries – that could be used for voter mobilization and party-building efforts.