Supreme Court strikes ‘Millionaires’ Amendment’ Exception from Campaign Finance Rules
By JOSH KRAUSHAAR 6/26/08
Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the Supreme Court has “never upheld the constitutionality of a law that imposes different contribution limits for candidates who are competing against each other.”
The Supreme Court today struck down the so-called Millionaires’ Amendment on Thursday as unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision, dealing a blow to candidates facing wealthy opponents.
The decision overturns a provision in campaign finance law that helped candidates facing self-funded opponents by loosening restrictions on their fundraising limits. Once a House candidate contributed $350,000 of his or her own money to a campaign, the amendment allowed opponents to receive three times as much as otherwise would be allowed from individual contributors. A similar dynamic applied to Senate candidates.
Political party committees, which operate under restrictions regarding how much money they can spend on behalf of congressional candidates, were able to donate unlimited funds to those facing opponents who invoked the amendment.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, ruled that the amendment was a violation of the First Amendment. He wrote that the Supreme Court has “never upheld the constitutionality of a law that imposes different contribution limits for candidates who are competing against each other.”
Wrote Alito: “While [the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] does not impose a cap on a candidate’s expenditure of personal funds, it imposes an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises that First Amendment right, requiring him to choose between the right to engage in unfettered political speech and subjection to discriminatory fundraising limitations. The burden is not justified by any governmental interest in eliminating corruption or the perception of corruption.”
Alito was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
The election law provision was challenged by Jack Davis, a millionaire businessman who ran as the Democratic nominee against then-NRCC chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) over the last two election cycles. Reynolds spent over $5 million to defeat him in what was a closely contested 2006 campaign. Davis is running again for the Democratic nomination — and already his primary opponent, Iraq war veteran Jonathan Powers, cited the Supreme Court decision and Davis’ deep pockets in a fundraising appeal Thursday afternoon.
The decision follows last year’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned a part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that prevented issue-based groups from advertising within a certain timeframe before an election.
“It’s one more chink in the armor. The court has been taking a dim view a lot of the campaign finance restrictions in the law,” said Democratic attorney Stan Brand. “They blew away the rationale that it’s Congress’ right to level the playing field.”
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) issued a statement arguing that the bulk of the law remains intact. “The Supreme Court decision today on the millionaire’s amendment has no impact on the central component of McCain-Feingold, which is the soft money ban,” he wrote. “That soft money ban, which the Supreme Court has upheld, remains intact. It has revolutionized political fundraising in this country. I opposed the Millionaires’ Amendment in its initial form and I never believed it was a core component of campaign finance reform.”
The Millionaires’ Amendment has traditionally benefited sitting members of Congress, who normally hold sizable fundraising advantages over their opponents.
The law is unlikely to have a significant political impact in individual campaigns. Self-funded candidates, in general, already have poor political track records.
But it will have an immediate effect on several high-profile congressional races that involve candidates that have poured in millions of their own money.
For example, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) had been able to fundraise with fewer restrictions against Republican Sandy Treadwell, a multimillionaire who already has poured in nearly $1 million of his own money. Now she will have to abide by the normal fundraising limits.
Other candidates that have triggered the Millionaires’ Amendment include Republican Chris Hackett, running in a competitive race against freshman Rep. Christopher P. Carney (D-Pa.), and GOP businessman Mike Erickson, running for the open seat of retiring Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.). Both have each already spent more than $790,000 of their own money in the primaries alone.