A sharply divided Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to strike down overall limits on how much individuals can give to federal candidates and parties.
In one of the new term’s most politically charged cases, conservative justices made clear their skepticism about the current contribution limits. The tenor of the hour-long oral argument suggested that an eventual 5-4 decision could result that strikes down the aggregate limits, which currently restrict an individual to giving $123,2000 to candidates and parties over a two-year election cycle.
“You cannot pretend this is pursued with no First Amendment cost,” Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., told Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr.
While Verrilli acknowledged the contribution limits are “not free of First Amendment cost,” Roberts pressured harder, noting that the limits restrict how many candidates a donor can express support for; something, Roberts said, that could not be applied to other forms of political expression, like newspaper articles.
“You cannot have a rule that the Post or the Times could only endorse nine candidates,” Roberts said.
Roberts joined his fellow Republican appointees Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and, to a less emphatic degree, Anthony Kennedy in raising pointed questions about the aggregate limits. While Justice Clarence Thomas followed his standard practice of staying silent, he has voted in the past against campaign finance rules he maintains violate free-speech protections.
The court’s four Democratic appointees, in turn, sounded generally more sympathetic to the campaign donation limits.
“Aggregate limits combat corruption,” Verrilli said.