The hour-long arguments exposed sharp and familiar differences on the court.
Liberal justices appointed by Democratic presidents said the restrictions help ensure that the voices of regular people are not drowned out by those of the wealthy. Conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents portrayed the laws as attempts by the government to silence First Amendment rights.
The stakes were clear at a news conference later in the day, when President Obama repeated his criticism of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that corporations and unions may spend directly on elections. He said the 2010 decision helped create the climate that led to the government shutdown.
“I’ve continued to believe that Citizens United contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now,” Obama said. He said some Republican lawmakers are willing to compromise but fear that deep-pocketed outside groups would target their reelection bids.
He said the court’s new case would go even further. “It would say anything goes — there are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns,” Obama said.
If his description of the case was overstated — there would still be plenty of rules about how to finance campaigns — his sentiments also were part of the justices’ debate.
Restrictions on campaign contributions, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “promote democratic participation” by forcing candidates to expand their fundraising efforts.
“Then the little people will count some, and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections,” she said.
Justice Antonin Scalia was sarcastic in responding, “I assume that a law that only prohibits the speech of 2 percent of the country is okay?”
The case at the court, brought by a wealthy Alabama political donor named Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee, challenges a contribution restriction that most Americans could not afford to exceed.
It imposes a $48,600 limit on contributions to candidates during a two-year election cycle, plus $74,600 total on giving to political parties and committees.
McCutcheon is not challenging the base limits on contributions to candidates — $2,600 for both primary and general elections — but said he wants to give the maximum to as many candidates as he wants. He can’t do that without violating the $48,600 limit.
At the heart of the current case is the framework created by the court’s seminal 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which upheld limits on campaign contributions that Congress put in place two years earlier in response to the Watergate scandal. That ruling drew a distinction between contributions, which the court said could be limited to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, and expenditures, which the court determined were a form of direct personal expression.