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Supreme Court appears skeptical of campaign finance rules in Ted Cruz challenge

The court has long said that because money buys the ability to spread a political message, limits on expenditures implicate the First Amendment.

WASHINGTON — A majority of Supreme Court justices on Wednesday cast doubt on a federal restriction involving candidates who loan large amounts of money to their own political campaigns.

After 90 minutes of courtroom argument, it appeared that the court was inclined to rule in favor of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who challenged the law after his last re-election victory.

Under the 2002 federal law, candidates can receive repayment of up to $250,000 from the pool of contributions made to their campaigns after an election. Cruz loaned his re-election campaign $260,000 in the 2018 fight against his Democratic challenger, then-U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, intentionally going above the limit in order to trigger a legal challenge.

Cruz won before a lower court panel of three federal judges, who said the law unconstitutionally limits a candidate's political speech, applying longstanding Supreme Court rulings that say because money buys the ability to spread a political message, limits on expenditures implicate the First Amendment.

Some of the Supreme Court's liberals said the law imposed a sensible limit intended to reduce opportunities for corruption.

"The entire point of this law is that we start getting worried when people start repaying the candidate's indebtedness, because that's just another way of putting money in his pocket," said Justice Elena Kagan.

But Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested that existing limits on campaign contributions might be enough to deter corruption, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett said Cruz's contention is that repaying the loan doesn't enrich him, it merely makes him whole.

"Repayment of a loan is never considered a gift," added Justice Samuel Alito.

Defending the law, Justice Department lawyer Malcolm Stewart said the case should be thrown out because Cruz intentionally triggered a violation of the law. That's not a proper basis for a lawsuit, he said.

Stewart said he couldn't sue McDonald's after hearing that it serves very hot coffee and intentionally pouring it in his lap to injure himself.

"I think we all have the strong reaction that such a suit can't go forward," he said.

But several justices said the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that people can intentionally test a law's constitutionality.

"If people challenging discriminatory housing practices go in and try to buy a house and are discriminated against because of their race, they don't have to prove they would actually buy the house," Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Paul Smith, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government watchdog group, said in a friend-of-court brief that the law helps prevent corruption.

"A payment that directly compensates a candidate — like a post-election contribution to repay a candidate's personal loan — is effectively a gift and raises all of the same obvious corruption concerns associated with gifts to officeholders," he said.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a consistent opponent of the restrictions in the 2002 federal law, filed a brief supporting Cruz.

"The limit means a candidate might not recoup amounts in excess of $250,000; thus the limit chills core political speech, especially speech by unknown challengers who need to spend more to be heard," McConnell said.

The court will issue a decision by late June.