The impact of Citizens United v. FEC, 2010’s landmark campaign finance ruling, was felt not just at the federal level but also in the states. Though its challenge was to federal limits on corporate independent spending, it quickly spurred responses in state legislatures across the country.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear another federal campaign finance case with potential ramifications for the states: McCutcheon v. FEC. The Federal Election Commission limits how much an individual can give to a single candidate or committee (base limits). It also caps the amounts an individual can give to all federal candidates and committees in a two-year period (aggregate limits).
McCutcheon’s main target is the second set of limits. But, depending on how the Court arrives at its ruling, it could also set up a follow-up challenge to base limits. Longtime contribution limits opponent U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell has asked the Court to apply strict scrutiny – the highest level of judicial review – to contribution limits. Many court watchers think this request, if granted, would open the door to striking down all contribution limits.
Not all states cap aggregate contributions. At our last count, just ten limit aggregate contributions by individuals to candidates, committees or both (Arizona repealed its individual aggregate limits earlier this year).
Indeed, not all states even limit base contributions. Twelve states allow individuals to contribute unlimited sums to candidates. Of these 12, seven also grant other entities – such as political action committees, corporations and unions – the same latitude (though Indiana limits aggregate contributions by corporations and unions).
However, the states that do have relevant provisions in place will likely see a direct effect if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down federal limits. Following Citizens United, Montana tried to defend its ban on corporate independent spending. The Court was unpersuaded, dismissing the claim with a curt note that, “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does.”
Assuming the Court was similarly unreceptive to arguments for state contribution limits, a ruling striking federal limits as unconstitutional would presumably also extend to the states.
The effects of such a ruling could also ripple out in a completely different direction. Before Citizens United, just under half the states had laws banning corporate independent spending. However, more than half the country has seen legislation in response to the ruling.
What seems to have happened is that many states took the Citizens United ruling – and the attendant spotlight on campaign finance – as an impetus to re-evaluate their campaign finance systems, tightening disclosure requirements, exploring public financing and imposing new limits to offset those overturned by the ruling.
Something to watch will be whether McCutcheon (and possible follow-up cases) has a similar effect. If the Court strikes down contribution limits, what kinds of conversations will that start in the state legislatures? Will any of the states not directly affected by the ruling respond, as some states did after Citizens United, with new efforts to rethink their campaign finance systems?
Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist and ACLS public fellow in NCSL's Legislative Management Program.