Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Supreme Court's 2002-2003 Term

Campaign Finance

In a decision concerning direct contributions by a nonprofit advocacy corporation to candidates in federal elections, seven Justices held in Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont, 2003 U.S. LEXIS 4595 (2003) that the regulations of the Federal Election Commission, which ban direct contributions by a nonprofit corporations, did not violate the First Amendment and thus were constitutional. The Court recognized that the basis for the ban was to protect the public from the potentially harmful influences of corporate dollars aimed at federal campaigns. The Court explained that for almost one hundred years, federal law has prohibited corporate contributions to federal candidates in order to ensure integrity throughout the political process, and to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption by keeping corporate earnings from becoming political “war chests.” In light of the risks of corruption and negative influence posed by corporate contributions and corporations’ special state-created advantages, the Court stated, congressional judgment to regulate such giving “warrants considerable deference” and is reflective of a permissible assessment of the dangers that corporations pose to the electoral process. 2003 U.S. LEXIS 4595 at 21. Nonprofit advocacy corporations pose a similar risk of corruption as for-profit companies, the majority explained, as they too benefit from ‘state-created advantages.’ Thus, a ban on such direct contributions is constitutionally valid. The majority opinion stated that when assessing challenges to contribution limits under the First Amendment, the appropriate level of scrutiny has been relatively low since “contributions lie closer to the edges than to the core of political expression.” Id. at 29. Thus, a contribution limit “passes muster if it satisfies the lesser demand of being ‘closely drawn’ to match a ‘sufficiently important interest.” Id. at 30. Since the ban on nonprofit advocacy corporations meets this standard, the majority held, the limitation is constitutional. Justice Kennedy concurred in the judgment. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, dissented from the majority opinion, arguing that strict scrutiny should be applied to campaign contribution limits, and that the prohibitions on nonprofit corporation contributions, as with other contribution limits, are not narrowly tailored to any compelling state interest. This decision may provide a partial preview as to how the Justices will evaluate parts of the McCain-Feingold law next term.

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