The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a campaign finance case concerning how campaigns can repay candidates’ loans, in a 6-3 decision that critics warn could make it easier to bribe political candidates.
Cruz sued the Federal Election Committee regarding a rule that limits how political campaigns can reimburse candidates for loans they make to their own campaign, allowing them to repay up to $250,000 in loans at any time, and more than that only if they’re repaid within 20 days post-election.
Cruz made a $260,000 loan to his campaign right before the election in 2018 and $10,000 could not be repaid, so Cruz sued to challenge the underlying regulation, arguing it infringed on his First Amendment rights.
The court ruled that the limitation on repaying loans “burdens core political speech without proper justification,” saying if politicians can’t be fully reimbursed by their campaigns, it will dissuade them from loaning money in the first place.
The Biden administration had argued Cruz didn’t have standing to bring the case because his campaign purposely didn’t pay back the full loan on time so that he could bring the lawsuit, but the court ruled that the fact Cruz’s issue was “willingly incurred” shouldn’t stop him from being able to sue.
Justices also struck down the government’s argument that the regulation helps prevent corruption and “quid pro quo” arrangements in which a candidate is bribed, saying there was insufficient evidence to back that up.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court’s majority, and the ruling was split along ideological lines, with the six conservative-leaning justices ruling in Cruz’s favor while the three liberal justices dissented.
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the ruling “greenlights … sordid bargains” and “government corruption” by making it easier to bribe candidates, laying out the possibility where candidates lending money to their campaign will lead to a “gaping” hole in their own personal bank accounts, making them more willing to accept bribes and quid pro quo arrangements from donors to ensure they’ll get their money back. “The politician is happy; the donors are happy,” Kagan wrote. “The only loser is the public.”
Cruz initially brought his lawsuit in 2019, and a district court had ruled in his favor before the federal government appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The Texas senator’s 2018 Senate race against challenger Beto O’Rourke was the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history at the time, Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his ruling for the court. The regulation at issue in the case was part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, that imposed restrictions on political donations to prevent corruption. The court previously struck down other provisions of that law with McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014, which abolished some limits on individuals’ political donations; Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, which ruled corporations and other groups shouldn’t be subject to restrictions on campaign spending; and Davis v. FEC, which struck down a “millionaire’s amendment” that allowed candidates going up against wealthy challengers that self-fund their campaigns to raise additional funds.
Ted Cruz at heart of case that could legalize quid pro quo election contributions (Courthouse News Service)