The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon, in McCutcheon v. FEC, on whether the Federal Election Campaign Act’s biennial aggregate limits on individual political contributions are constitutionality permissible. Many have argued that, if the Supreme Court strikes down the federal limits, aggregate limits imposed by state law will likewise be tossed aside. That may well be true, but don’t expect it to happen overnight.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, eight states currently limit the total contributions individuals may make to state or local candidates, parties, and/or state political committees: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Some of these limits are quite low. Maryland, for example, caps total contributions to all candidates per four-year election cycle at $10,000. While the logic of the Court’s McCutcheon decision might make those state aggregate limits hard to defend, that will probably not stop some states from threatening to enforce these laws. After the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United decision in January 2010, some states continued to take the position that state laws prohibiting corporate independent expenditures, or limiting contributions to state Super PACs, were enforceable. Montana even defended its ban on corporate independent expenditures all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which, in June 2012, issued a short per curiam decision striking down the law. Indeed, four years after Citizens United, some state rules limiting contributions to state Super PACs remain in effect. In New York, for example, the New York Attorney General has continued to mount a tenuous defense to the state’s cap on contributions to independent expenditure-only committees, even after the Second Circuit concluded that enforcement of those rules, as applied to one mayoral Super PAC, was likely unconstitutional.
In the post-Citizens United context, the biggest obstacle to overturning these state restrictions on independent expenditures is not the substantive legal theory. Rather, these laws tend to remain on the books because few individuals with standing are willing to incur the expense and public scrutiny associated with challenging them. We expect a similar dynamic will play out with respect to challenges to state aggregate contribution limits. Given that history, it may be years before all state aggregate contributions fall away, if they ever do.