In Significant Action, Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case to Allow Corporate Contributions Directly to Candidates

Via SCOTUSBlog comes the news that the Supreme Court, without comment, has denied cert. in Danielczyk v. U.S.,The decision not to hear the case is significant, because it means the Supreme Court majority, which has shown hostility to campaign finance limits, has decided not to move as aggressively as it could in further deregulating the campaign finance system.

The case raised the question (in the context of a criminal prosecution) whether corporations have a constitutional right to contribute money directly to candidates. The 2010 Citizens United case held that corporations have a constitutional right to spend money independent of candidates, but the opinion did not address corporate contributions to candidates (or contribution limits more generally).  A number of campaign finance opponents argued that the logic of Citizens United compelled the conclusion that the corporate contribution limit should fall also. One problem with this argument in the lower courts is that the Supreme Court had held, in a case predating the Roberts Court’s skeptical approach to regulation, that the corporate contribution ban was valid [typo corrected].  Among other things the Court said that a corporate contribution ban prevented circumvention of individual contribution limits (after all, an individual could set up a large number of corporations to make contributions directly to candidates).

I successfully defended San Diego’s corporate contribution ban in the Thalheimer case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. All of the other circuit courts reached the same conclusion: that the corporate contribution limit stands under earlier Supreme Court authority.  Danielczyk case the only case to reach a contrary conclusion in the district court, but was reversed by the 4th Circuit to bring it in line with the other circuits.

Although there was no circuit split on this question (a common reason for the Supreme Court to agree to hear the case), the lower courts clearly expressed the opinion that the issue was foreclosed by earlier Supreme Court authority, and it would be up to the Supreme Court if it wanted to change the existing standard.

By not agreeing to hear Danielczyk, the Court leaves corporate contribution bans in place not only on the federal level, but under state and local law. It may be that after the Supreme Court decides the McCutcheon case, involving aggregate contribution limitations, that the standards for judging the constitutionality of contribution limit laws could change, making those laws harder to sustain. That could open up the corporate contribution limitation yet again. But in the meantime, the reform community dodged a bullet, because if the Court agreed to take Danielczyk, it almost surely would have been to reverse the Court’s earlier case on the question.

Yet another ray of light in an otherwise bleak campaign finance picture.

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