Published On: Thu, Aug 18th, 2016

Campaign Finance Laws On the Line in 2016 Election

While the media focuses its attention on the circus that is the 2016 presidential election, one major issue has been buried under the click-baiting headlines: The U.S. Supreme Court. The next president of the United States will be in charge of nominating a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and perhaps other justices as well.

While the appointment of Justice Scalia’s replacement affects the nation in many ways, it may have a particular impact on campaign finance laws.

In recent history, the Supreme Court has played a role in campaign finance rules. The Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976 is one of the first examples of the High Court’s ruling having an impact on this area of public policy.

FECA (Federal Election Campaign Act), which was enacted in 1972, required federal candidates to disclose expenditures and contributions. The Act also established a public financing program for presidential candidates. Three year later, the act was amended to place a limit on expenditures and contributions under the FEC (Federal Election Commission).

At the time, the Supreme Court was comprised of moderate justices who were transitioning from a more liberal composition.

photo/ donkeyhotey

photo/ donkeyhotey

The very first ruling on the Act was made in 1976, which upheld contribution limits as well as the disclosure rules and presidential public financing program. Groups were permitted to spend independently, and disclosure was only required explicitly supporting or opposing a candidate.

At the time, unions and corporations were still barred from contributing to federal candidates.

The Supreme Court engaged in several campaign finance-related rulings since Buckley v. Valeo.

The new millennium brought about changes that shifted the laws more towards free speech. The BCRA (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) was passed in 2002, which placed limits on donations to national political parties. No longer could wealthy interests give unlimited “soft money” to help build parties.

Restrictions were also placed on independent advertisements, which prohibited ads 30 days before the primary and 60 days prior to the general election.

The ban on soft money contributions sparked growth in spending by independent groups.

BCRA’s would eventually be picked apart by a more conservative Supreme Court composition, which began when Justice O’Conner replaced Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Several cases led to major changes in finance laws, with Citizens United v. FEC starting the changes and McCutcheon v. FEC culminating the fight. The High Court had ruled in defense of First Amendment Free Speech rights and strongly endorsed disclosure.

Presently, the court is evenly divided on campaign finance law. The appointment of Justice Scalia’s replacement will pivot the court towards tougher restrictions on finance or continue on the trend toward looser rules.

Donald Trump, Republican presidential nominee, has already acknowledged and expressed the importance of this election in terms of appointing a new Supreme Court Justice. Trump warned that if Clinton were to win the general election, she would be in charge of appointing the new Justice, which would spell trouble for the former conservative-leaning Court.

Democrats have expressed hope in overturning Citizens United, which may lead to stricter campaign finance laws. Left-leaning voters have been highly critical of money in politics.

Author: Jacob Maslow

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