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Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Campaign Finance Limits In D.C., Md.

A Supreme Court ruling could mean more money flowing into campaigns in D.C. and Maryland.
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A Supreme Court ruling could mean more money flowing into campaigns in D.C. and Maryland.

A new Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance limits could have a big impact in both D.C. and Maryland.

In today's 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled that the limit on how much an individual can give to different federal candidates over a two-year period — currently $48,600 — is unconstitutional, opening the floodgates for contributions to an unlimited number of candidates.

Advocates for campaign finance limits worry that the ruling will allow well-heeled individuals to give money to large numbers of candidates at a time, effectively granting them influence not enjoyed by other small donors.

The ruling did not strike down the limit on contributions to individual, which stands at $2,600 per candidate.

Both D.C. and Maryland have limits on aggregate contributions. In D.C., no individual can give more than $8,500 to candidates for elected office or $5,000 to political action committees during a single election cycle. In Maryland, individuals are prohibited from giving any more than $10,000 to candidates during a four-year cycle.

In a report published last year, the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that a Supreme Court ruling like the one that came down today could force nine states with aggregate limits in place to scrap them. (The report did not cite D.C.'s aggregate limits; 12 states and D.C. have the limits in place.)

"If the Court determines that these aggregate limits are an abridgment of free speech, that ruling will likely lead states to dismantle similar limits at the state level," it said.

David Mitrani, an attorney at Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb who specializes in state and federal campaign finance laws, says while impacts on the states will differ based on their specific laws, it stands to reason that many states will abandon the limits.

"[The ruling] certainly calls into question the laws, and it's unlikely that given [Chief Justice John] Roberts' opinion these laws would survive," he says. "It's unlikely that these aggregate limits by themselves will survive."

Some states could fight the ruling, he says, while other may choose to stop enforcing them.

D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan's office says that it is "studying the decision and its potential applicability to D.C." Wesley Williams, the spokesman for the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, says it's "too early to tell" how the ruling could impact the city's law.

David Paulson, a spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, says much the same thing: "We have to study the law."

But according to Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a group that supports the limits, the State Board of Elections is moving to scrap its limits.

"Common Cause Maryland was informed by that state Board of Elections that it will be proactively issuing a ruling in the next few weeks stating our aggregate limit in [Maryland] is no longer in effect," she says. "They do not want to wait for a lawsuit."

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