April 2nd, 2014
10:17 AM ET
5 months ago

Justices strike down political donor limits

Washington (CNN) - In another blow to federal election laws, the Supreme Court on Wednesday eliminated limits on the total amount people can donate to various political campaigns in a single election season. However, the court left intact the current $5,200 limit on how much an individual can give to any single candidate.

At issue is whether those regulations in the Federal Election Campaign Act violate the First Amendment rights of contributors.

The divided 5-4 ruling could have an immediate impact on November's congressional midterm elections, and add another layer of high-stakes spending in the crowded political arena.

Possible 2016 GOP contenders pow-wow with big donors

"We conclude that the aggregate limits on contributions do not further the only governmental interest this court accepted as legitimate" said Chief Justice John Roberts, referring to a 1976 precedential ruling.

"They instead intrude without justification on a citizen's ability to express the most fundamental First Amendment activities."

Roberts was supported by his four more conservative colleagues.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the majority opinion will have the effect of creating "huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform."

The ruling leaves in place current donor limits to individual candidates, and donor disclosure requirements by candidates, political parties, and political action committees.

Parties tout fundraising figures

The successful appeal from Shaun McCutcheon, 46-year-old owner of an Alabama electrical engineering company, is supported in court by the Republican National Committee.

They object to a 1970s Watergate-era law restricting someone from giving no more than $48,600 to federal candidates, and $74,600 to political action committees during a two-year election cycle, for a maximum of $123,200.

McCutcheon says he has a constitutional right to donate more than that amount to as many office seekers as he wants, so long as no one candidate gets more than the $5,200 per election limit ($2,600 for a primary election and another $2,600 for a general election).

But supporters of existing regulations say the law prevents corruption or the appearance of corruption. Without the limits, they say, one well-heeled donor could in theory contribute a maximum $3.6 million to the national and state parties, and the 450 or so Senate and House candidates expected to run in 2014.

Opponents of some of the current regulations applauded the court's reasoning.

"What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "You all have the freedom to write what you want to write donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give."

“The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a Constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice," said Sen.Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Let me be clear for all those who would criticize the decision: It does not permit one more dime to be given to an individual candidate or a party - it just respects the Constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support," added the five-term Republican senator from Kentucky, who faces a difficult re-election this year.

But supporters of the limits expressed disappointment.

"The Supreme Court majority continued on its march to destroy the nation's campaign finance laws, which were enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy," said Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for election money reforms. "The court re-created the system of legalized bribery today that existed during the Watergate days."

And Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who last decade co-authored a sweeping law that put in place strict campaign finance limits, said “I am concerned that today’s ruling may represent the latest step in an effort by a majority of the Court to dismantle entirely the longstanding structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics."

The individual aggregate limits were passed by Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and upheld by the high court in 1976.

The current competing arguments are stark: Supporters of campaign finance reform say current federal regulations are designed to prevent corruption in politics. Opponents say they criminalize free speech and association.

The current case deals with direct political contributions. A separate 2010 high court case dealt with campaign spending by outside groups seeking to influence federal elections. There, the conservative majority - citing free speech concerns - eased longstanding restrictions on "independent spending" by corporations, labor unions, and certain non-profit advocacy groups in political campaigns.

The Citizens United ruling helped open the floodgates to massive corporate spending in the 2012 elections. It also led to further litigation seeking to loosen current restrictions on both the spending and donations.

After the high court's oral arguments in October, President Obama had weighed in, saying he supports the current law.

"The latest case would go further than Citizens United," a three-year-old ruling expanding corporate spending, he said, "essentially saying: anything goes. There are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns.

The case is McCutcheon v. FEC (12-536).

CNN Senior Congressional Producer Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report


Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (887 Responses)
  1. Peter Q Wolfe

    What is wrong with this country? Honestly these judicial activist conservatives have gone too far with thier radical plutocratic image of America. Wish we could limit all contributions of political campaigns to a capped amount depending on the income of the individual in political campaigns. For example, 1% should never exceed 1% of total expendetures of donations in a given cycle nationwide that could be averaged out by the previous years amount with a maximum pool too!

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  2. Michael Reali

    I'm not sure I have a problem with this. Yes, it will create problems, but problems create opportunity to adjust. This is a nation of adjustments...

    Have we thought about privatizing Capitol Hill? It's almost there already, but now we can take that small step beyond this ruling by the SCOTUS and just obviate and enact the inevitable. I'm sure we could find the 200 wealthiest corporations and individuals and create an entity that is responsible for funding their compensation, benefits, expenses, etc. In a way, we outsource the running of the legislative branch of our government. There would be a board made up of the Koch's and Buffets of the world and they would then have a C-Level filled with ex-govt. folks who determine the strategy and direction of the country. All elected officials cascading down throughout the country from Congress would be on the payroll of this entity – which would be a private entity and no longer funded by taxpayers (directly)?

    he said tongue in cheek.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  3. Pat B

    And so it goes. The rich can buy any election they choose both on the right and the left. The lobbyists and the rich will make sure the politicians are willing to kiss them wherever they want to be kissed and o what they want done. The common man is the one left out.

    The politicians are the whores willing to do anything the lobbyists want done

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  4. Dan

    Politicians sold to the highest bidder and the favoritism that goes along with that, nothing new here.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  5. rrdude

    Amen Seth, Amen.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  6. Bob

    Not a surprise the Rich control everything that used to be America the great. Anyone think Congress would ever pass a bill with limits........Yea I know funny. The good thing is that when the Rich get through taking everything from the middle class leaving just the rich and poor then the poor will simply kill and take back.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  7. Freedom Storm

    Conundrum: Something that is puzzling or confusing. A riddle.
    The six contradictions of socialism in the United States of America:
    1. America is capitalist and greedy – yet half of the population is subsidized.
    2. Half of the population is subsidized – yet they think they are victims.
    3. They think they are victims – yet their representatives run the government.
    4. Their representatives run the government – yet the poor keep getting poorer.
    5. The poor keep getting poorer – yet they have things that people in other countries only dream about.
    6. They have things that people in other countries only dream about – yet they want America to be more like those other countries.
    Answer to the riddle: There is none.
    The components that make it a riddle need to be removed and abolished.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  8. betterdays

    Just keep celebrating 7 million Obamacare signups like you were yesterday. Victory is yours.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  9. kottmyer

    Just goes to show... the clowns who wrote the Constitution should have stayed on their plantations.

    But then, they were all rich slave-owners, so I guess the Supremes are doing their bidding after all.

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  10. Esh

    and rich people win again! Goverment of the people only if the people can afford to buy a piece of it!

    April 2, 2014 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  11. Cinman

    Big money wins again while the majority of folks lose out. Of course many folks won't change their lemming voting habits either. Our slide into 'once was a beacon of equality and justice' continues.

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  12. nonono

    Someone said "Are you ready for a revolution?" and I say "Hell yes!"

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  13. not really news

    In two hundred years the fall of Rome will look like a puny compared to the fall of the United States.... history will portray these conservative judges as greedy , power hungry, money under the table, corrupt men they are. The Koch brothers will then be considered the un-elected rulers who brought the nation to it's knees.

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  14. nonyabizz

    The best oligarchy money can buy....

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  15. Scott

    For those of you that are trying to make this a GOP/Democrat thing ... IT IS NOT! Both, I repeat BOTH, parties have dropped to their knees in front of the well heeled donors and give world class "air starts" to them to extract the big bucks.

    Scott

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  16. Lynda/Minnesota

    @ Timothy C"

    "Regardless of your political affiliations, it's hard to understand how anyone can think this is a good idea. Democracy means one person, one vote. While political donations aren't the same as voting, this gives the ultra-rich an enormous advantage over the rest of us folks (including the middle class). I'm no liberal, but this was the wrong decision."

    Well ... you know: George Soros.

    /sarcasm

    (BTW: should there be any doubt ... I fully agree with your comment)

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  17. RHONDA RAY

    of course!! they just want to impose their bullshit rules and regulations on us... THE PEOPLE THEY WORK FOR!

    April 2, 2014 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  18. jonathanlk

    In school I learned that Democracy is all about the money. We had to memorize America's Democracy as being basically : "By the money, Of the money, and For the money". This confirms it 100%. It is more a CorpoOligarchy than when it started. It was never totally egalitarian, but that was supposed to be the vision. We have moved further and further away from that as money dictates every decision these days, and anything egalitarian is called 'socialism', a pox on you (so it is no longer about the individual or the people). Sorry to say, it is only getting worse.

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  19. TheBigT

    That's because the Democrats and Obama spent more than any other President in the history of this country running for office.

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  20. Semper Cogitatus

    So you want limits on what individuals can donate (but only to Republicans, I'm certain you would put no limit on what liberals can donate), limits on what businesses can donate (again only to Republicans), but no limits at al on what unions can donate.

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  21. Edward J. Wilkins

    I love how foreigners come here and act like they would do anything to enact change that Americans aren't already trying to do and proceed to bash those who express outrage of the subject article, calling them lazy.

    What would you do Ivan? Grab an AK47 and try to storm the White House?

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  22. Billy Bob

    This is a GREAT victory for FREEDOM and for PATRIOTS. This ruling insures more patriots (Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Tom Delay) win elections, thus insuring the subversive, comunist, democrat candidates are sent packing

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  23. oscarcz

    Sad day and another 5-4 decision. Very bad decision. Our democracy was SUPPOSSED to be based on ideals NOT $$$$ and those that can & will buy politicians. Sad.

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  24. G

    This ruling is absurd. Spending is not free speech. What they should have done is left the law as it was, and then point out that anyone who wants to prop up their favorite candidate can go out and purchase advertising time in whatever media they want, and have their say. They should also not allow the politicfal parties and/or candidates to have any input to the individuals advertisaement for that candidate. Now THAT would be free speech.

    April 2, 2014 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  25. Manchester United fan

    Congrats, Yanks! You have finally become the Oligarchic States of America. Elections for sale! Very expensive! Reps and Senators for sale! Buy yours today!

    April 2, 2014 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
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