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Supreme Court Sides With Ted Cruz Over Campaign-Finance Rule

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/16/2022 Jess Bravin
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WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court struck down a federal campaign-finance regulation limiting politicians from repaying loans to themselves above $250,000 from donations received after Election Day.

The 6-3 ideological split sided with Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who argued the limitation abridged free-speech rights. Three liberal justices in dissent said the rule helped curb corruption.

Separately, the court restricted immigrants from challenging in federal court adverse factual findings by immigration judges.

Mr. Cruz brought the suit as a test case against the regulation, which caps at $250,000 the reimbursement of a candidate’s personal loans with money his or her campaign collects after the election. In his 2018 face-off against Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Mr. Cruz lent his campaign $260,000—leaving $10,000 at issue in the case.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the cap on repayment could inhibit candidates from loaning themselves funds that could be crucial to victory. That amounted to a limit on their free speech that the government couldn’t justify, he wrote.


Video: Supreme Court strikes down campaign repayment limit in win for Sen. Cruz (MSNBC)

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“The ability to lend money to a campaign is especially important for new candidates and challengers. As a practical matter, personal loans will sometimes be the only way for an unknown challenger with limited connections to front-load campaign spending,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “A large personal loan also may be a useful tool to signal that the political outsider is confident enough in his campaign to have skin in the game, attracting the attention of donors and voters alike,” he continued.

The court’s prior rulings on campaign-finance rules have, in essence, recognized only bribery as a justification for regulating political contributions, the chief justice wrote.

“We have denied attempts to reduce the amount of money in politics, to level electoral opportunities by equalizing candidate resources, and to limit the general influence a contributor may have over an elected official,” he wrote, citing among other precedents Citizens United, the 2010 decision invalidating limits on election spending by corporations and unions. While such rules may be well intentioned, they abridge the First Amendment, he said.

The court’s liberals, who had dissented from many of the earlier decisions the majority cited, saw things differently.

“Political contributions that will line a candidate’s own pockets, given after his election to office, pose a special danger of corruption,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent. “The candidate has a more-than-usual interest in obtaining the money (to replenish his personal finances), and is now in a position to give something in return,” she wrote.

“The donors well understand his situation, and are eager to take advantage of it. In short, everyone’s incentives are stacked to enhance the risk of dirty dealing,” she wrote, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“In striking down the law today, the Court greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop,” Justice Kagan wrote.

Write to Jess Bravin at jess.bravin+1@wsj.com

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