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)

    How did these CLOWN justices EVER get a job on the Supreme Court or JOKE of a court?????

    April 2, 2014 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  2. ja

    Why don't we just bid candidates, the justices has gotten wrong before as now

    April 2, 2014 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  3. Sniffit

    In related news, MSM advertising departments have emptied out because everyone had to go home to change their pants after reading that it just became easier to make more political ad revenue in exchange for favorable coverage of that side's positions on an issue. Yay. This ruling is asinine and not only deepens the damage the SCOTUS is doing to our electoral systems (not to mention long-standing free speech precedent, which they've apparently decided to just throw away), but also will further the destruction of the 4th estate...what's left of it anyway....rotting, decadent mess that it already is.

    April 2, 2014 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  4. Rudy NYC

    How many straws are they going to use to break an already broken camel's back?

    I hope folks realize that these changes to campaign finance laws are colectively making it legal to bribe politicians.

    April 2, 2014 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  5. Silence DoGood

    Oh goody, I was hoping the 1% and Koch Bros would have more control of my life and my country.
    Why don't we just skip the pretense and let the top 1% vote and have the rest of us do what we are told.
    One more small step toward the Right Wing Corporate Theocracy.

    April 2, 2014 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  6. KD Phoenix

    Figures. I guess whoever bought off SCOTUS is getting their money's worth..

    April 2, 2014 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  7. Rick McDaniel

    The government is bought and paid for, by those who seek favor from the government.

    April 2, 2014 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  8. Guest

    WOW. So, the wealthy have more influence over our elections than the average American? This is ridiculous.

    April 2, 2014 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  9. Lynda/Minnesota

    " ... and add another layer of high-stakes spending in the crowded political arena."

    And may the best "bought and paid for" candidate win.

    Publicly kissing the ring of benefactors SHOULD be an embarrassment to EVERY candidate willing to do so; but apparently this is to become a new norm in American politics.

    Political ads ought to acknowledge the following: "As a bought and paid for candidate of [ fill in the blank ], I approve this message on behalf of [ fill in the blank ]".

    April 2, 2014 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  10. Sniffit

    "Why don't we just skip the pretense and let the top 1% vote and have the rest of us do what we are told."

    Honestly, that's probably the quickest route to solving the problem. After all, it only lasts so long before the pitchforks and guillotines come out.

    April 2, 2014 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  11. sonny chapman

    Corporations are NOT People. They don't go to war& have their legs blown off. They don't get sick because they lack Health Insurance. They don't have their kids killed by Assault Rifles. They don't get laid off by downsizing. They don't see their kids strapped w/huge Student Loans. Corporations are a Legal FICTION. They do NOT have the same 1st Amendment Free Speech Rights as flesh & blood HUMANS. Corporations are created by HUMANS. Human Beings are Created by God, Allah, Yahweh.

    April 2, 2014 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  12. Dean

    Nobody happier than George Soros.

    April 2, 2014 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  13. Dallas

    There is very little hope now. The right wing biased Supreme Court has opened the flood gates for the tea bags to take over our government and our lives. Roberts, Scalia, et. al should hang their heads in shame. Money rules our politics and this opens the door for even more coruption – let's just change our name to the United States of Koch. This SCOTUS is a disgrace!

    April 2, 2014 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  14. sonny chapman

    "We the PEOPLE..."

    April 2, 2014 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  15. Lynda/Minnesota

    @ Dean:

    "Nobody happier than George Soros."

    This IS a both sides do it issue that ALL Americans (especially we the little people) should NOT be celebrating.

    April 2, 2014 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  16. TONE

    It's not that we as voters can't do anything about this with our votes we already know who is funding candidates to destroy America we should make it toxic for any congressman or senstor who take money from these people. we are more than them.

    April 2, 2014 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  17. Eron

    Are they trying to provoke civil strife? I mean for supposedly being such smart guys and gals did they miss the last 200 years of bloody social revolutions based on this kind of crap?

    At any rate, thanks for pounding yet another nail in Americas coffin, this SCOTUS is going to go down as one the worst in American history.

    April 2, 2014 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  18. G

    Why bother having elections any more.the rich like the KOCH brothers will pick your leader .the question is who will be KING or will it be a divided KINGDOM

    April 2, 2014 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  19. Rusty Krus

    The French Revolution (French: Révolution française) was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France from 1789 to 1799 that profoundly affected French and modern history, marking the decline of POWERFUL MONARCHIES and churches and the rise of democracy and nationalism. POPULAR RESENTMENT of the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and ARITOCRACY grew amidst an economic crisis following TWO EXPENSIVE WARS and years of bad harvests, motivating demands for change.

    Think it can't happen here?

    April 2, 2014 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  20. Fair is Fair


    "Why don't we just skip the pretense and let the top 1% vote and have the rest of us do what we are told."

    Honestly, that's probably the quickest route to solving the problem. After all, it only lasts so long before the pitchforks and guillotines come out.
    No, Robespierre... the best solution to the probem is public financing – giving candidates EQUAL dollars and forcing them to run on their merits.

    April 2, 2014 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  21. Carverbo

    If donating money is free speech, how much does it cost to buy a judge on the Supreme Court? I might want to buy acouple to throw in the River!

    April 2, 2014 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  22. B.

    This country is going down a road to complete distrust in it’s political system as Britain has also lost trust in it’s leaders.

    Money buys everything now including the Supreme Court.. We are losing our democracy to power and greed.

    April 2, 2014 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  23. Alan

    Democrats want their cake and to eat it too – they are the party of the rich.

    Republicans represent Middle Class Amercia!

    April 2, 2014 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  24. bearitstrong

    I am sure this is what founding fathers had in mind... NOT

    April 2, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  25. Anonymous

    you can now, legally, buy a congressperson.

    April 2, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
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