Supreme Court strikes down part of campaign finance law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court struck down on Thursday part of a U.S. campaign finance law that relaxes contribution limits for candidates facing wealthy, self-funded opponents, a ruling that could affect congressional elections in November.

By a 5-4 vote, the high court declared unconstitutional the provision known as the “millionaire’s amendment” that Congress adopted out of concern that rich, self-financing candidates would have a competitive advantage.

It allows congressional candidates to accept higher contributions when they face opponents who spend large amounts of their own money. It is part of the 2002 campaign finance law named after its Senate sponsors, Democrat Russell Feingold and John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate.

Election law experts have said the ruling could affect a handful of congressional races in November, especially those in which Republicans are counting on millionaire candidates to counter the recent fund-raising success by Democrats.

The law is triggered when a candidate for the House of Representatives spends more than $350,000 in personal funds. The opponent then can gather contributions three times the normal limit from individuals and may coordinate with their political party for additional contributions.

The law also imposes extensive reporting requirements on the self-financing candidate. Similar provisions apply to Senate races.

The court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, struck down the campaign contribution limits on candidates competing for the same congressional seat and the disclosure requirements under the provision at issue.

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In the first four years the law has been in effect, more than 100 House and Senate candidates faced opponents who spent enough of their personal wealth to trigger the provision.

One of the most prominent beneficiaries of the law so far has been Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in his 2004 Democratic senatorial primary campaign in Illinois. Obama was able to accept additional contributions because his opponent spent nearly $29 million of his own money.

The ruling was a victory for Jack Davis, a wealthy Democrat from the Buffalo, N.Y., area who narrowly lost a congressional race in 2006.

Davis spent more than $2.2 million of his own money, but lost to Republican Rep. Thomas Reynolds by 51 to 49 percent. Reynolds is not seeking re-election. Davis, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2004, is a candidate again this year.

Alito agreed with the arguments by Davis that the law violated the constitutional free-speech rights of self-financed candidates, impermissibly burdening Davis’ rights to spend his own money for campaign speech.

The court’s liberals -- Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- dissented and said they would have upheld the law.

Editing by David Wiessler