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Campaign finance lawsuits in Minnesota and other states take aim at contribution limits

WASHINGTON — Challenges to campaign finance laws have increased since conservative justices took the U.S. Supreme Court in a new direction on the issue.

The Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon was another signal to advocates that the Roberts court will be receptive to challenges to campaign finance laws.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron
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Lawsuits against these laws aren’t some post-McCutcheon or post-Citizens United phenomenon, but Tara Malloy, the senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Fund, said they have become more prevalent since George W. Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the court and instituted a more conservative interpretation of campaign finance challenges.

In 2006, the court struck down a Vermont law setting contribution limits for donors and spending limits for candidates. The following year, justices lifted a federal ban on campaign ads from unions and labor organizations in the months leading up to an election. In both cases, the court ruled against the laws on first amendment grounds.

“Once they staked out their position, at that point we saw a huge surge in challenges to campaign finance laws, federal and state,” Malloy said.

Citizens United “added a lot of fuel” to the fight over campaign finance regulations and Malloy said there was a jump in cases afterward. She said she expects the same after McCutcheon.

All that being said, experts say the court isn’t looking to move too quickly on the highest-profile campaign finance regulation: limits on how much individuals can give to campaigns.

The court kept those limits intact in McCutcheon, but Democratic lawmakers are especially worried they might be the next to fall. Rep. Keith Ellison said last week the ruling could make it harder to justify individual limits in the future. Rep. Tim Walz said the ruling was “another step in the direction” of losing the base limits altogether.

“I think the next logical step is they’ll take the caps off altogether, and then it’s a free-for-all,” he said.

But there is one big practical reason that won’t happen any time soon: there isn’t a lawsuit challenging the caps yet, Malloy said. And the Supreme Court isn’t exactly rushing to take up other campaign finance cases right now. Justices had the chance to consider an Iowa ban on corporate contributions this year but declined.

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Still, Malloy said the court’s ruling in McCutcheon sets the stage for courts to more closely scrutinize campaign finance laws, and “if lower courts read between the lines in McCutcheon, that could be problematic for all contribution limits.”

Keating agreed that the limits were safe for now. But he said, “I imagine it happening in the next ten years … it’s something that should happen.”

“The court is definitely trending in the direction of a more libertarian, more free speech approach,” the Institute for Justice’s Sherman said. “The Roberts Court has been moving in a deregulationist direction. … I don’t think that they should change course.”