April 2nd, 2014
10:17 AM ET
9 years 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.

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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. Rudy NYC


    It's funny that liberals want to limit individual spending, but when unions want to dump millions into a PAC they have no problem. I think the current limits are more than acceptable, although I think it needs to be limited to voting districts. If I want to give my senate, House, presidential, or local candidates the maximum contribution, then that should be my right. What I shouldn't be able to do is donate to campaigns in districts I don't live or vote in. Liberals forget that they actually started this. After the 2000 and 2004 elections they fought to redistrict several zones to benefit their regional candidates, and wanted to use outside funding to help those candidates in places like Florida and South Carolina. ... ....
    Redistricting of House districts only occurs every 10 years following a census. Nothing of the sort occurred in 2004, and the Republicans were running most states in 2000.

    One side effect of the ruling that has the plaintiff, the RNC, especially happy is that ruling only applies to private donors, which means the rules are still in effect for groups like publicly owned corporations and public unions. How's that for slick?

    April 2, 2014 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  2. notaboblehead

    Now you will know who Adelson, Koch brothers and the owners of the plutocracy are. Democracy is dead in The United States of America. This country is OWNED and the rest of us are just peons and serfs to the KING MAKERS!

    April 2, 2014 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  3. Lynda/Minnesota

    "This country is OWNED and the rest of us are just peons and serfs to the KING MAKERS!"

    No doubt it will eventually sink in ... even to the most staunch of devotee's accepting this ruling as a "freedom to fly your flag" democracy benefiting we the people who are too blind to see beyond our own noses ... politically or otherwise.

    April 2, 2014 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  4. tdhawkes

    Liberals and conservatives are so caught up in fighting each other they don't see how our government is being sold to the highest bidder. It doesn't matter who buys government, it is a bad thing. Government must represent the good of all, not special interests.

    April 2, 2014 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  5. somebody

    Money is not free speech. This is a sad day for the US.

    April 2, 2014 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  6. Randy

    This wouldn't even be an issue if Democrats would get people registered and get them to the polls on election day.

    April 2, 2014 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |

    Just SHOW UP TO VOTE in November and you will turn the Koch money AGAINEST the GOP , I'll be first in line.

    April 2, 2014 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  8. declan carney

    Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression. Ratified 12/15/1791.
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
    free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
    the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of

    This was not a vote for or against Democrat or Republican or conservative or liberals or moderates. This is a vote that goes counter to the core idea that American was founded on “equality”. The idea that “all men” are created equal (it took a while to get to “all people are created equal” but we got there). That the rights of one person could not out weight another’s. Does it not “abridging the freedom of speech” to interpret the constitution to say that the wealthiest amongst be they liberal or conservative or moderate, can so vastly amplify their speech over those who do not have the same means. This decision removes the whole idea of equality from our freedom of speech. What good is the freedom of speech in it not somewhat equal for all.

    Further the equal right to vote in a free and fair election process is one of the most important tenants of a true democracy. Anyone who believes the untold millions that will now be spent in future election will not further corrupt that process is a fool or one of 5 Supreme Court justices who voted in the affirmative today.

    April 2, 2014 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  9. RetNavy

    That Means George Soros and the Hollywood elite can buy the Democratic Party. That and 32,000.00 dollar dinners with the Great Liar OBama.

    April 2, 2014 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  10. Pete

    That law is fine,now make it public when donors go over certain monetary limits..And if possible bring in the IRS and make sure the donation is clean...The republicans want their Citizens United,this bill being voted along political lines but only for them and Pres.Obama showed them last election how two can play their game didn't he!!

    April 2, 2014 07:39 pm at 7:39 pm |
  11. michael

    In you face they want money to rule not your vote.
    Do you need more evidence.

    April 2, 2014 08:43 pm at 8:43 pm |
  12. Chuck Buck

    What this = is a gateway to corruption. The Supreme Court is a worthless body that escapes the foundation of how this Government was built... Checks and Balances. It is ridiculous that 9 people have this much power over one nation. Yes I know it's in the constitution, but it is one thing IMHO that is truly undemocratic.

    April 2, 2014 08:54 pm at 8:54 pm |
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