The Supreme Court quietly handed a victory to supporters of campaign finance reforms on Monday, affirming a lower court decision upholding federal restrictions on “soft money” without issuing an opinion.
Yet while the Court’s summary decision in Republican Party of Louisiana v. FEC is good news for opponents of money in politics, it comes with an ominous warning about the future now that Donald Trump has installed a man on the Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch, who occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for a year until Trump could fill it, voted to give the case a full hearing — a strong indicator that Gorsuch is inclined to strike down the soft money law.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas the Court’s most hardline opponent of campaign finance laws, indicated that he agreed with Gorsuch.
Federal law prohibits corporations from “making any contributions from their general funds to political parties and candidates for federal elections,” and it similarly prohibits individuals from contributing more than $33,400 to national political parties and $10,000 to state and local parties. Though state law sometimes permits contributions that violate these rules, such contributions may not be spent in many ways that benefit federal candidates.
The plaintiffs in Republican Party asked the Court to effectively lift this last restriction, thus effectively allowing corporate and unlimited individual donations into federal elections, so long as it is laundered through a party.
In McConnell v. FEC, the Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge, and the lower court held that it was bound by that decision, as well as a related decision that relied on McConnell.
Nevertheless, many Court-watchers feared that the justices who gutted much of the nation’s campaign finance laws in Citizens United v. FEC — four justices who are now joined by Gorsuch — would use Republican Party as a vehicle to roll back limits on money in politics even further.
That’s not going to happen today, but Gorsuch’s decision to vote with Thomas suggests that he may share Thomas’ extraordinarily restrictive view of the government’s power to keep money out of politics. Thomas was the only justice in Citizens United who voted to strike down disclosure requirements that sometimes allow the public to learn who is spending money to influence elections.