WASHINGTON — In its first major campaign finance case since the Citizens United ruling in 2010, the Supreme Court is considering whether to undo some limits on contributions from the biggest individual givers to political campaigns.
The justices will hear arguments Tuesday, the second day of their new term, in a dispute between the Obama administration and Republicans who are challenging the contribution limits as a violation of First Amendment rights.
Supporters of campaign finance laws say the case poses a threat to the contribution limits that Congress first enacted in 1974, in the wake of Watergate abuses.
In 2010, the 5-4 ruling in Citizens United freed corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they wish on campaign advocacy, as long as it is independent of candidates and their campaigns. That decision did not affect contribution limits to individual candidates, political parties and political action committees.
Now, Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala., the national Republican party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky want the court to overturn the overall limits on what contributors may give in a two-year federal election cycle. The total is $123,200, including a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates, for 2013 and 2014.
The partisan-tinged campaign finance case comes to the court amid a tense stalemate over the federal budget that has shuttered parts of the government, but so far has not affected the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice John Roberts formally opened the new term Monday without any reference to the shutdown. The court has announced it will operate normally at least through the end of this week.
Among the appeals denied Monday was Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s request to review a federal appeals court ruling that threw out the state’s ban on oral and anal sex. The justices did not comment in rejecting the argument.
The court also declined to hear, at least for now, Argentina’s appeal of a ruling that orders it to pay hedge funds that bought up some of the country’s unpaid debt from its default in 2001.
The campaign finance case being argued Tuesday would not affect the current $2,600 limit on individual contributions to any candidate for Congress, in any given election.
McCutcheon, owner of the Coalmont Electrical Development Corp. in McCalla, Ala., said he will spend a few hundred thousand dollars in the current election cycle, including large donations to so-called super PACs that are not affiliated with candidates.
McCutcheon gave the symbolically significant $1,776 to 15 candidates for Congress and wanted to give the same amount to 12 others. But doing so would have put him in violation of the cap.
“It’s a very important case about your right to spend your money how you choose,” he said.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. told the court that donors “could potentially funnel massive amounts of money to a favored candidate,” in the absence of the overall limit. One donor, giving the maximum allowed to every congressional candidate, political party and political action committee, he said, would exceed $3 million in contributions in a single election cycle.
The Republican challengers are asking the court to take an even more aggressive approach than merely overturning these particular limits. McConnell is leading the charge to urge the justices to ditch their practice over nearly 40 years of evaluating limits on contributions less skeptically than restrictions on spending.
Among other top cases already set for review by the justices:
—Greece, N.Y., is asking the court to uphold its practice of opening town council meetings with a prayer, despite an appeals court ruling that found the invocations a violation of the First Amendment.
—Mount Holly, N.J., is defending a plan to demolish and redevelop a rundown neighborhood against claims that it discriminates because it disproportionately affects African-American and Latino residents. At issue is whether there must be an intent to discriminate under federal housing law.
—Michigan is fighting to preserve a constitutional amendment that bans the use of racial preferences in education.
—Massachusetts is defending a law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone at abortion clinics to limit protesters’ ability to interact with patients.