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. RonTx

    Also time for a flat tax with no exemptions or special income tax levels.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  2. barbara

    Basically, it's saying the sky's the limit in terms of buying influence in the government. This furthers conflict of interest on the part of person seeking election to in some way shape or form "thank" the donor by special appointments or even the pushing through particular laws etc. Being allowed to give any money creates conflict of interest. Candidates should be given a small budget for campaigning etc., to level the playing field. It should not be "may the richest candidate win."

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  3. tychi

    "divided 5-4 ruling", yep, the supreme court is political. Now you know why the GOP does not want Obama to have anyone on a federal court. The GOP wants to stack the court. We are becoming, the land of the 1% rich and home for the slaves.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  4. Jamielee

    This is a dark day in American political history.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  5. coyoteliberty

    Koch Brothers or George Soros? Who is the bigger boogey man? The fact is simple: Liberal Democrats as a class benefit more from Big money donors than conservative republicans, Just as there are more wealthy democrats in congress than republicans. The party of the people nonsense is just that.

    Vote Libertarian.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  6. Officiallyasocialistnow

    I am so angry right now. I cannot believe they voted for this crap. After hearing the oral arguments one week prior I was so sure they weren't going to let this happen. I don't even want to be a democrat anymore. I'm starting the socialist party and for all those "old farts" part of the red scare/soviet scare, guess what the younger crowd doesn't have that many negative connotations with the word socialist, but I guess that doesn't matter. Ahhhhhh I am so ranting right now, but seriously wtf!

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  7. JDinHouston

    Major blow to Tea Party and Democrats – now only the rich will choose candidates and run campaigns. You can pretend to vote Republican or Democrat, but the winner won't be working for you.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  8. Rodolfo

    Expressly violating the spirit of our funding fathers vision, now it became legal to buy power through money. Another step in our decadence as a country. After SC decision, the US no more can dictate the moral political standards to the world. May the demon be entertain in something else before he realizes how an easy political prey we became as a country.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  9. Walter

    Is anyone really surprised by the outcome? Afterall, politics is all about power, money is power and those with money want to ensure that their power continues. Hence.....

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  10. Jeff

    The Supreme Court has determined money will decide elections not the candidates merits. I think the founding fathers would be saddened to see the government evolve into what it is today.
    I do not have millions of dollars so if the candidate I believe best qualified does not get the backing of the millionaires and billionaires they lose as do I and the country. The Supreme Court is so politically divided I think it's in violation of the systems for checks and balances. The all mighty dollar and the Koch brothers selected facts win again.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  11. MB

    for all the talk about believing in the Constitution-it now comes down to believing in money-thanks to what Reagan started BUT the rich had better learn their history and how often throughout history it is OFF WITH THEIR HEADS

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  12. r. smith

    politicians for sale!!!!

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  13. ozob

    The system has been broken, and now it is even more broken. Those who are putting a partisan slant on this ruling are missing the point entirely, and shooting themselves in the foot. The idea that spending money on politics is a "First Amendment right" is a gross misinterpretation of the Constitution at best, and a perverted power grab at worst, analogous to ruling that the private ownership of nuclear bombs is permitted by our "right to bear arms." With this ruling and the Citizens United ruling, participatory democracy, which was already comatose in this nation, can be declared dead. The Koch Brothers, George Soros, the big PACs, corporations, and oligarchs rule the roost entirely. Any hope of reasonable campaign finance reform at any time in the near future is entirely dead. Those who have the money will determine which candidates emerge, make it through the primary process, and also what policy decisions are made by them once they are in office.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  14. Li

    Activist justices, anyone? Still think Obama is trying to rig the SCOTUS? Because it looks like GWB and his corporate owners beat Barack to it.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  15. Drew

    Anyone up for a revolution?

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  16. jinx9to88

    So much for the average person donation that cant afford a lot of money. Your vote and your donation means nothing! This is crazy!!

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  17. Kevin

    So do we live in an oligarchy or an aristocracy now? Not even sure anymore.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  18. Steve Webb

    Why not put it on the ballet for the people to decide

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  19. Obvious

    GREAT NEWS DEMOCRATS. You won't have to hide all those millions through web sites like Obama did.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  20. kylefromohio

    let alone the russian's or North Korea's or others can now contribute to our law makers to produce policies that tear down that wall on this side of the ocean. Like that Exxon deal with the russian own oil company that will be drilling in the gulf soon. Talking about a fools move. SCOTUS have setup this train wreck.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  21. CSD

    Not like the average once-middle-class amerikan had any real input anyway. This just affirms this country's best days are long behind it.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  22. David Gabriel

    The United States of America™, a wholly owned subsidiary of Raytheon Corporation.

    April 2, 2014 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  23. Vivian

    Did the Koch brothers buy the Supreme Court?

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  24. Servatius

    R.I.P. U.S.A.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  25. truth

    There is no question this place is turning into a Plutocracy quickly, it all started with the Republican Bankruptcy Law of 2005 that made private bank loans used for college a "lifetime debt" that protects Republican banks by removing all consumer protections from the loans.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
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