WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices cast doubt Tuesday on a campaign-finance law designed to level the playing field when a millionaire candidate enters a race.
In the most explicitly political case of this presidential election year, conservative justices voiced skepticism about the so-called "millionaire's amendment" championed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other incumbents. The measure lifts contribution limits for candidates facing rich opponents who pay for their own campaigns.
"It could be the millionaires have already been elected, and they're pulling up the ladder" behind them, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested.
The audience laughed, but Scalia and his allies repeatedly raised serious questions during the hour-long oral argument in the case, called Davis v. Federal Election Commission. The case is the latest challenge to a wide-ranging campaign finance law passed by Congress in 2002, and it comes before a court that's already proved itself willing to limit the law's reach.
Scalia declared that he was "deeply suspicious" of efforts by Congress to ensure equality of political spending. Chief Justice John G. Roberts added that another portion of the millionaire's amendment was "highly problematic," while Justice Anthony Kennedy — a perennial swing vote — termed yet another section "somewhat questionable" and "problematic."
More generally, the court's conservative core appeared unsympathetic to claims that the government should try to offset a millionaire candidate's inherent financial advantage.
"What if someone is more eloquent?" added Scalia. "Do you make them speak with pebbles in their mouth?"
The millionaire's amendment was backed by Feinstein, who's still smarting from her 1994 race against Republican Michael Huffington, who poured nearly $30 million of his family's money into the campaign.
For House of Representatives candidates, the provision kicks in when a candidate contributes more than $350,000 of his or her own funds to a congressional campaign. The law is complex, but it essentially raises the $2,300 individual maximum contribution limit to $6,900. The millionaire's opponent also can receive unlimited help from a political party, as well as contributions from individuals who have already reached the standard overall contribution limit of $42,700.
"It gives the impression that seats in Congress are there to be bought by the wealthiest bidder," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Tuesday in discussing millionaire candidates.
The law has teeth, even though it hasn't yet been applied in numerous cases. The Federal Election Commission hit North Carolina congressional candidate J. Edgar Broyhill II with a $71,100 fine when he failed to disclose his plans to self-finance his 2004 race.
In a Sacramento Valley congressional race in California to replace the retiring Rep. John Doolittle, Republican Doug Ose loaned his campaign $849,000 from personal funds. That permitted Ose's primary opponent, state Sen. Tom McClintock, to collect larger contributions.
Republican millionaire businessman Jack Davis, who brought the lawsuit, twice ran for a House seat in upstate New York, in 2004 and 2006. He spent more than $1.2 million of his own money in his unsuccessful 2004 bid. He said he spent more than $1 million in his 2006 race.
"This is an activity that constitutes political expression, at the core of the First Amendment," Davis' attorney Andrew D. Berman told the court.
Justices noted Tuesday that it's possible they could strike down one or two provisions of the millionaire's amendment without knocking down the entire law. Kennedy, for one, seemed particularly exercised about the provision that enables political parties to give unlimited assistance to candidates facing millionaires. Usually, political parties can give no more than $40,900 for House races.
A ruling is expected before the court adjourns in June.