The court’s conservatives agreed in a 6-3 decision.
“The government has failed to show that [the law] promotes a permissible anti-corruption goal, rather than the impermissible goal of simply limiting the amount of money in politics,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. , Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Justice Elena Kagan dissented, along with Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
“At the very least – even if an illicit exchange does not occur – the public will predictably perceive corruption in post-election payments that directly enrich an office holder,” she wrote, adding that “by striking down the law today, the court is giving the green light to all the sordid horse-trading Congress has seen fit to stop.
The provision Cruz challenges is part of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. It limits the amount of money federal candidates can raise and use after an election to repay personal loans. The government defends the law as necessary to prevent the occurrence of quid pro quo corruption.
The limit is $250,000. Cruz, as part of his 2018 Senate re-election campaign against Democrat Beto O’Rourke, loaned his campaign $260,000 the day before the general election.
The purpose was to challenge the law, as only $250,000 of that amount could be repaid with money raised after the election.
The government tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, saying Cruz’s injury was “self-inflicted”. Cruz chose the amount in order to exceed the limits for a test case. And his campaign had on hand $2.2 million raised before the election that could have been used to repay the loan in full.
But the appeals judges did not unanimously agree. The flaw in the government’s argument, they said, is that “Senator Cruz would have to avoid injury by submitting to the very framework he claims is unconstitutional.”
On the larger issue, the panel said the restriction could not be justified.
The FEC failed to demonstrate “that the bribery in return or its appearance stems from post-election contributions to repay a candidate’s personal debt”.