WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider a challenge to the so-called "millionaire's amendment," which permits politicians to evade the usual campaign-spending limits when they're facing wealthy opponents.
Championed by lawmakers ranging from California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Arizona Republican Sen. and presidential candidate John McCain, the millionaire's amendment has been one of the most controversial elements of a 2002 campaign-finance law.
"The amendment neither prevents corruption nor levels the playing field," complained unsuccessful New York congressional candidate Jack Davis. "Instead, it dramatically tilts the field to benefit incumbents and their big-money patrons."
Davis, a Democrat, wanted to commit his fortune in 2006 to challenge Republican incumbent Thomas Reynolds for a congressional seat between Rochester and Buffalo in upstate New York. Under the millionaire's amendment, Davis and other self-financing candidates must declare their intention to spend more than $350,000 of their own money, which he and others argue gives incumbents valuable intelligence.
Davis, a businessman, ultimately spent $1.25 million of his own money, but Reynolds spent more than twice that and beat Davis by 52-48 percent in a heavily Republican district.
Davis argues that the campaign-finance provisions violate constitutional guarantees of free speech and equal protection. Last August, a Washington-based appellate panel disagreed.
"It places no restriction on a candidate's ability to spend unlimited amounts of his personal wealth to communicate his message to voters, nor does it reduce the amount of money he is able to raise from contributors," Judge Thomas Griffith wrote for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Although the Supreme Court previously upheld the sprawling 2002 campaign-finance law, individual challenges such as Davis' continue as the high court assumes a more conservative cast. Last year, the court ruled 5-4 that some of the law's restrictions on issue ads were unconstitutional.
The latest case will be decided in an election year, heightening the stakes. Some wealthy congressional candidates, such as Minnesota trial lawyer Mike Ciresi, have been preparing to use their fortunes to finance their primary and general-election campaigns.
Challengers generally rely more on personal wealth than do incumbents, who have an easier time attracting contributions from political action committees and other big donors.
"Efforts to regulate political speech are often ripe with political motives," said Bradley A. Smith, a former member of the Federal Election Commission. "There are few things an incumbent fears more than a self-financed challenger."
The millionaire's amendment kicks in after a candidate spends more than $350,000 of his or her own money on a federal campaign. The customary campaign-finance limits then no longer apply.
Currently, for instance, individual donors can give only $2,300 apiece to a congressional candidate during this election cycle. If the millionaire's amendment applies, those donors can contribute $6,900 each to the candidate.
The amendment also permits candidates who face wealthy, self-financing challengers to accept donations from individuals who otherwise had reached their contribution limits. Usually, individual donors can't give more than $37,500 to political candidates over two years. The millionaire's amendment waives this limit.
Some lawmakers who support the provision were particularly irked by wealthy opponents. Republican then-California U.S. Rep. Michael Huffington, for instance, challenged Feinstein in 1994, spending more than $30 million in his losing effort.