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The U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority sided with Republican Senator Ted Cruz on Monday. Candidates will often give or lend money to their campaigns. Today's decision ended the federal ban on repayment of those loans coming from outside sources. The vote was 6 to 3, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Cruz challenged a federal law that's been on the books for 20 years. It bars federal candidates from raising more than $250,000 after an election to repay loans that the candidate made to his own campaign. Writing for the six-justice conservative majority, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed to previous decisions holding that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech safeguards the ability of a candidate to use personal funds to finance his own campaign. Those personal funds, Roberts said, include a bank loan guaranteed by the candidate. To put a limit on money raised to repay after such a personal loan after an election, Roberts said, would burden a candidate's core political speech.
FRED WERTHEIMER: This money is going directly into the pocket of the office holder. So it's not really a campaign contribution, it's a financial gift.
TOTENBERG: Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer.
WERTHEIMER: It's continuing a pattern of extreme hostility by the Supreme Court ever since Chief Justice Roberts came on the court. They have really tilted the system to the very wealthy in this country.
TOTENBERG: But Chief Justice Roberts, addressing fears of influence peddling, said, quote, "influence and access embody a central feature of democracy, that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns."
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's three liberals, accused the majority of greenlighting all the sordid bargains that Congress had tried to stop. Now, once again, she said, the politician, after being elected, is deeply grateful to the wealthy individuals and corporate lobbyists who pay off his loans. And they, in turn will receive favorable legislation - maybe prized appointments and maybe lucrative contracts. The only losers, said Kagan, is the public, which inevitably suffers from government corruption.
Kagan and Roberts dueled over the facts and the pages of their opinions, each citing information, sometimes from the same studies, and coming to different conclusions. Roberts said, in essence, that none of the studies could prove there was a pattern of quid pro quo corruption in the payoff of post-election loans. Kagan replied that quid pro quo financial arrangements are nigh unto impossible to detect and prove, but she cited a sampling of such cases that have been found in states that do not make such financing arrangements illegal. In Kentucky, for instance, two governors loaned their campaigns millions of dollars, only to be repaid after the election by contributors seeking no-bid contracts. The scandal those transactions created led to a new state campaign finance law similar to the one struck down today by the Supreme Court.
Though campaign finance reformers were disappointed by today's high court ruling, they were nonetheless relieved. The court did not do the one thing that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell asked it to do in a friend-of-the-court brief. He asked that the entire Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Law, enacted in 2002, be struck down, including the limits on campaign contributions. The court, at least for now, did not take the bait.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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