Taking on campaign finance law for the first time since its 2010 ruling that rolled back limits on contributions by corporations and unions, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday signaled an unwillingness to issue another broad ruling on how much people can donate in federal elections.
The nine justices appeared closely divided as they weighed a challenge by Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee to the overall limit on campaign contributions that donors can make to individual candidates and committees over a two-year federal election cycle.
The court waded back into the politically-charged debate for the first time since its sweeping Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. In that, the high court, split 5-4, lifted limits on independent expenditures, not coordinated with individual politicians or parties, by corporations and unions during federal election campaigns. The ruling greatly increased the amount of outside expenditures during the 2012 presidential election, experts said.
In Tuesday's argument, some justices suggested they might vote to lift the restrictions in question, but there was no sign of a desire to go further in weakening a key 1976 ruling, called Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld limits on campaign finance donations while also describing how courts should analyze such regulations in future
Chief Justice John Roberts, who was in the majority in the 2010 case, appeared to be looking for some middle ground that would allow individual donors to give to more candidates without opening the floodgates to multi-million dollar contributions.
McCutcheon can only give the maximum amount allowable to a total of nine candidates before he hits the cap under the current law.
"We are telling him he can't make that contribution no matter how modest," Roberts said.
The court's four Democratic-appointed justices appeared reluctant to lift the restrictions. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's regular swing vote, was suspicious of the government's current limits, but did not signal a strong interest in taking any dramatic steps.
In the current two-year election cycle (2013-14), an individual can give $2,600 to a candidate or committee and $32,400 to a political party. But donors cannot exceed the $123,200 overall limit during that period. There is also a $48,600 cap on total donations to candidates and a $74,600 cap on donations to political action committees and parties.