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Supreme Court Takes Case That Could Puncture A Key Campaign Cash Limit

Barely three years after the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling, which liberated corporations to spend freely in elections, the justices say they'll take up another campaign finance case — this time aiming at one of the limits on the "hard money" that goes directly to candidates and party committees.

The court decided Tuesday to hear arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, challenging the overall cap on how much a donor can give to candidates and party committees per two-year election cycle.

For the upcoming midterm elections, that overall cap is $123,200. (Because nothing in campaign finance law is simple, the total subdivides into $48,600 to candidates, $74,600 to parties and political action committees.)

Shaun McCutcheon is an Alabama energy investor and generous Republican donor. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says he gave $400,584 over the 2008-2012 elections. The Republican National Committee has joined him as a plaintiff.

The hard-money limits are at the heart of the campaign finance laws. They were enacted in 1974, and the Supreme Court has always upheld them. The key ruling was in 1976; the justices ruled that political spending is free speech, but political contributions, less so.

The Supreme Court upheld the power of Congress to restrict direct contributions, in the interest of preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption. The court reiterated this most recently in Citizens United.

Still, the bigger idea of Citizens United — that spending independently of the candidate or party is unfettered free speech — has had an impact. If it's OK for donors to drop a million or two into some superPAC or social welfare organization, why let them put only $123,200 into the hard-money system between now and Jan. 1, 2015?

At this point, the plot thickens. The justices today didn't deal with another case on their doorstep — one that would overturn the 1907 ban on corporate contributions directly to candidates. By one theory, the justices want to poke a constitutional hole in the contribution limits first, before taking up the corporate-money ban.

Rick Hasen, a law professor and campaign-finance scholar at the University of California, Irvine, tells NPR he expects the court may use the McCutcheon case to set standards for challenging the hard-money limits. "If the court does that," he says, "then a whole host of campaign contribution limits could be subject to future challenge."

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