The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that part of a federal elections law violated the First Amendment.

Under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the Federal Election Commission limited federal candidates’ ability to raise money post-election to repay their personal loans to their campaigns.

In a 6-3 decision (Federal Election Commission v. Cruz), the Supreme Court found that the authority granted by Section 304 of that law violated candidates’ free speech rights. While the decision immediately affects only federal elections, the court’s legal argument would presumably apply to similar state election regulations.

The Supreme Court has long held that running for office and donating to campaigns are protected forms of speech under the free speech clause. Chief Justice John Roberts noted in Cruz that the First Amendment “has its fullest and most urgent application precisely to the conduct of campaigns for political office.” 

In Cruz, the question was not whether donations from third parties can be used to retire a candidate’s personal campaign loans. The issue was the timing of the donations – can they be made after an election? The FEC argued that the statute was designed to fight corruption by prohibiting a quid pro quo between post-election donors and newly elected (or re-elected) officials. The commission further argued that any burden on free speech was small, as the statute “…does not restrict the amount of money that a candidate may spend, the amount he may donate or lend to his campaign, or the amount of money campaigns may raise from donors. It instead imposes a narrow timing restriction, capping the campaign’s ability to use a specific set of funds (post-election contributions) for a specific purpose (re-paying the candidate’s personal loans).”

In recent decades, the court has been particularly skeptical of any burden on free speech, regardless of magnitude. Here, the court found the FEC arguments lacked legitimacy. In particular, the court noted that the commission did not provide any examples of the problem the statute was attempting to solve. The court also noted there are other legislative safeguards against corruption.

While the court’s holding applies only to restrictions on donations in federal elections, the broad language in the majority opinion makes it clear that federal courts will now greet similar state campaign fundraising restrictions with considerable skepticism. State officials may consider reviewing their finance regulations for limits on post-election loan recovery.

The National Conference of State Legislatures and Ballotpedia provide resources for state policymakers to review state-level campaign finance laws.

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