By Jonathan Stempel and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three years after easing limits on corporate political donations in the Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to consider whether to lift caps on how much individuals may contribute to candidates.
In a brief order, the court agreed to hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a challenge by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee to limits on aggregate donations over a two-year period.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in September had rejected McCutcheon's argument that capping donations violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
But if the Supreme Court disagrees, it could use the case to change part of its landmark 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, that upheld such caps, which are sums in the mid-five figures.
"This case gives the court a chance to reconsider an issue resolved in Buckley, upholding aggregate limits on contributions," Richard Hasen, a campaign finance expert and law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said in a phone interview.
"It's not a watershed case in the sense Citizens United was, but it could extend that case's logic to contribution limits, which could be very significant," he added.
The Citizens United case was decided in 2010 by a 5-4 vote, and removed limits on independent expenditures made by companies and unions to support or oppose political candidates. The court based its ruling on a First Amendment right to free speech.
Critics of the position taken by the RNC and McCutcheon believe that lifting contribution limits could allow individual donors undue influence.
"If the Supreme Court reverses its past ruling in Buckley, the Court would do extraordinary damage to the nation's ability to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in a statement. He said the group plans to submit a brief urging the court to uphold the limits.
McCutcheon is chief executive of Coalmont Electrical Development Co, a general contractor in McCalla, Alabama, located about 20 miles southwest of Birmingham.
He had contributed $33,088 to various candidates in the 2012 election cycle, but had hoped to contribute another $21,312.
That, however, would have caused him to run afoul of a $46,200 limit on contributions to candidate committees.
Another limit capped overall contributions to national political parties, state political parties and non-party political committees at $70,800, so long as no more than $46,200 goes to the latter two groups.
Lifting the limits could allow individuals to funnel more money overall to candidates. For example, an individual could choose to donate $1 million to 400 candidates in $2,500 increments, but not donate $1 million to a single candidate.
"The limits distort the system by forcing people to give money to SuperPACs and advocacy groups, when they would rather give money to individual candidates and parties," James Bopp, a lawyer for McCutcheon and the RNC, in a phone interview.
"That drives money away from the most accountable and transparent actors in our political system, in favor of entities that are basically unaccountable to the voter," he added.
SuperPACs are a type of political action committee.
McCutcheon could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide the McCutcheon case in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2014.
The case is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-536.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)
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