Supreme Court skeptical of campaign-finance law

The top court seems to be unsympathetic to candidates with millionaire opponents.

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices cast doubt Tuesday on a campaign-finance law designed to level the playing field when a millionaire candidate enters a race.

In the most explicitly political case of this presidential election year, conservative justices voiced skepticism about the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other incumbents. The measure lifts contribution limits for candidates facing rich opponents who pay for their own campaigns.

“It could be the millionaires have already been elected, and they’re pulling up the ladder” behind them, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested.

The audience laughed, but Scalia and his allies repeatedly raised serious questions during the hour-long oral argument in the case, called Davis v. Federal Election Commission. The case is the latest challenge to a wide-ranging campaign finance law passed by Congress in 2002, and it comes before a court that’s already proved itself willing to limit the law’s reach.

Scalia declared that he was “deeply suspicious” of efforts by Congress to ensure equality of political spending. Chief Justice John G. Roberts added that another portion of the millionaire’s amendment was “highly problematic,” while Justice Anthony Kennedy — a perennial swing vote — termed yet another section “somewhat questionable” and “problematic.”

More generally, the court’s conservative core appeared unsympathetic to claims that the government should try to offset a millionaire candidate’s inherent financial advantage.

“What if someone is more eloquent?” added Justice Samuel Alito Jr. “Do you make them speak with pebbles in their mouth?”

The millionaire’s amendment was backed by Feinstein, who’s still smarting from her 1994 race against Republican Michael Huffington, who poured nearly $30 million of his family’s money into the campaign.

For House of Representatives candidates, the provision kicks in when a candidate contributes more than $350,000 of his or her own funds to a congressional campaign. The law is complex, but it essentially raises the $2,300 individual maximum contribution limit to $6,900.