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Supreme Court says political influence isn’t corruption

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In the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign finances this week, this was one of the central questions:

Does the general influence and access that large political donors may have with elected officials amount to government corruption?

A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court said “no.” A minority said “yes.”

The majority said government may restrict campaign finances to prevent corruption or an appearance of corruption, but it said corruption is limited to a direct exchange of money for an official act.

The minority said that definition of corruption is too narrow and should be broadened to include political influence.

In the 5-4 decision issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down a law that capped at $123,200 the total amount that an individual could contribute per two-year election cycle to candidates for federal office and federally registered party committees and political action committees.

The Supreme Court ruled individuals can donate as much as they wish as long as they abide by legal limits on direct contributions to each individual candidate or committee.

The decision means an individual can contribute a total of up to $3.6 million this election cycle to candidates for the U.S. House and Senate and federally registered party committees. The $3.6 million represents the maximum legal donations to each candidate and committee.

The Supreme Court ruling comes four years after its Citizens United decision, which freed corporations, unions and others to raise and spend as much as they want on elections as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates.

The court has held that campaign contributions are political speech and political association protected by the First Amendment and that government may restrict donations only to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption.

And in the opinion issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court made it clear that when it is talking about corruption, it means a direct exchange of money for an official act.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

“In a series of cases over the past 40 years, we have spelled out how to draw the constitutional line between the permissible goal of avoiding corruption in the political process and the impermissible desire simply to limit political speech. We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.”

Roberts also wrote, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”

The chief justice wrote that were was a “substantial mismatch” between the government’s interest in preventing corruption and the cap on the total amount an individual could contribute to candidates and committees.

The cap, Roberts wrote, restricted how many candidates or committees an individual can support with maximum allowable contributions.

“The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Roberts wrote.

The Supreme Court case was brought by a conservative donor and the Republican National Committee.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion relied heavily on a narrow definition of corruption that excluded efforts by political donors to obtain influence or access to officials or political parties.

Breyer wrote:

“In reality, as the history of campaign finance reform shows and as our earlier cases on the subject have recognized, the anticorruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest. … It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public government institutions.”

Campaign finance restrictions should be seen as a means to strengthen the First Amendment, rather than weaken it, the justice wrote. “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard,” he said.

Breyer also said:

“Taken together with Citizens United … today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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