November 26, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Thompson v. Hebdon

On November 25, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thompson v. Hebdon holding that, in considering whether caps on individual campaign contributions violate the First Amendment, courts must compare the cap to others upheld by the Supreme Court and to campaign-finance laws in other states, and must consider whether the cap is indexed for inflation.

As the Court described it, “Alaska law limits the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate for political office, or to an election-oriented group other than a political party, to $500 per year.” Some Alaska residents filed suit claiming that this limit violated the First Amendment.

The Ninth Circuit upheld the limit. In the process, it “declined to apply” the Supreme Court’s 2006 campaign-finance decision in Randall v. Sorrell, on the ground that in Randall “no opinion commanded a majority of the Court.”

The Supreme Court vacated that decision and remanded for the Ninth Circuit to consider Randall. The Court explained that Alaska’s law shares some of the “danger signs” that the Randall opinion identified. First, the $500 limit is “is less than two-thirds of” the lowest contribution limit the Court has previously upheld. Second, the $500 limit is “substantially lower than comparable limits in other States” and in some respects is “the most restrictive in the country.” Third, “Alaska’s contribution limit is not adjusted for inflation.” The Court therefore vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision and remanded so the Court of Appeals could “revisit whether Alaska’s contribution limits are consistent with our First Amendment precedents,” including these Randall factors.

The unanimous opinion of the Court was per curiam. Justice Ginsburg issued a concurring statement.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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