WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down part of the campaign finance reform law that allowed federal office-seekers running against wealthy opponents to exceed normal contribution limits.
The "millionaire's amendment" to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 permitted candidates to receive larger campaign contributions when their opponents spent heavily out of their own pockets. The amendment to the law, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, was viewed as an attempt to level the playing field for candidates and to prevent personal wealth from becoming a qualification for elected office.
But critics said it was a thinly disguised maneuver to protect entrenched incumbents from upstart and well-to-do challengers.
The court said in a 5-4 ruling that the amendment violated the 1st Amendment because it penalized a candidate who robustly exercised his free-speech rights by spending heavily.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the amendment required "a candidate to choose between the 1st Amendment right to engage in unfettered political speech and subjection to discriminatory fundraising limitations."
Alito said that by attempting to level the playing field, Congress was in effect attempting to influence voters' choices.
"Different candidates have different strengths. Some are wealthy; others have wealthy supporters who are willing to make large contributions. Some are celebrities; some have the benefit of a well-known family name," Alito wrote. "Leveling electoral opportunities means making and implementing judgments about which strengths should be permitted to contribute to the outcome of an election."
Under the law, he said, those are judgments for voters alone.
The court first ruled in a 1976 case, Buckley vs. Valeo, that spending money to influence elections was a form of constitutionally protected free speech and that individual candidates could give unlimited amounts of money to their own campaign.
But it also appeared to backtrack somewhat from that position in 1990 when it held that states could limit contributions of corporations because of what the majority called "the corrosive and distorting effects" of corporate power on campaigns.
Legal experts said Thursday that by rejecting the idea that Congress could attempt to level the playing field of campaigns, the court cast doubt on the viability of its 1990 ruling, potentially imperiling state and federal limits on corporate and union contributions.
"It is the strongest sign yet that those limits are in serious danger of being struck down," said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "This is not a good day for those who believe . . . it should be permissible to limit wealth in the political process so that disparities in wealth don't translate into disparities in political influence."
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by three other justices in dissent, found no problem with the law. "The millionaire's amendment quiets no speech at all," Stevens wrote. "It does no more than assist the opponent of a self-funding candidate in his attempt to make his voice heard; this amplification in no way mutes the voice of the millionaire who remains able to speak as loud and as long as he likes in support of his campaign."
Stevens said the limits were not unlike other spending limits the court had endorsed.
The millionaire's law, which had been upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington, allowed House candidates whose opponents spent $350,000 or more of their own money to accept triple the usual $2,300-per-donor limit until they had offset the spending disparity.
The law was challenged by New York Democrat Jack Davis, who spent more than $3 million trying to unseat incumbent Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) in 2004 and 2006. Reynolds, who chose not to solicit the increased contributions, is retiring at the end of this term. Davis has announced plans for a third run at the seat.
Democrat Barack Obama became one of the first beneficiaries of the law in his run for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Obama's main foe was Blair Hull, a wealthy investor who poured $28 million of his own money into the campaign. Under the campaign finance law, co-written by Obama's presumptive Republican presidential opponent, Hull's personal spending allowed Obama to raise money in increments of as much as $12,000 per donor, far above the $2,100 cap then in effect.
Jim Cauley, who was Obama's U.S. Senate campaign manager, said he thought Obama would have won without the boost from the influx of big money.
In an interview Thursday, he added: "Do I think it helped us? Absolutely."
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.