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. Bastage

    The Supreme Court is one of our branches that need term limits. After 10 years. you go home. The problem is that the court is ran by to many very old people who are set in their ways and do not have a clue whats going on in the world around them.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  2. Ron P

    Why did CNN show a dollarized US Flag for its picture on the main page of this story – Can you say "Democrat Political Partisanship?" I thought you could.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  3. Scarlita

    "Are you devoid of meaning and purpose in your life? Do you already have all that money can buy? Why not treat yourself to the sweet exhilarating power? The biggest empire on Earth can be yours for only $_________, bids are opening so send your lobbyists now!."

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  4. zjmullen2013

    If you hate this decision, like everyone on this board seems to, there is a simple solution for all of us people: stop voting for the candidate with the biggest war chest. Stop falling for their marketing tactics and do a little research to find the candidate of the common man. We still have the power of the vote, so please seize it.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  5. rrjkr

    This is especially troubling with our two party system. If you have enough money you can theoretically pay for both sides.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  6. Bayousara

    I am not voting anymore. And I never miss any election, local, state, fed. This country has gone to hell in a hand basket. So sad.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  7. CovertRain

    Koch brothers...."squee". Seriously, we need to get the money out of the political campaign system on both sides or politicians will be corrupted by money forever. What a stupid ruling.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  8. MB

    so we are to be ruled by the rich-BEWARE -in history it is often OFF WITH THEIR HEADS

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  9. Tom Wilson

    By reading the comments, it would appear that people think that the job of the SCOTUS is to legislate, and it's not. Their role is simply to determine the constitutionality of laws. Nobody on the left was screaming when this "terrible" SCOTUS ruled in favor of the Obamacare mandate that the majority of citizens were not happy with. I didn't like it either, but again, I can see the reasons for their decision in that case and in this case. Is this ruling dangerous? Perhaps, but really the problem is that low information voters are influenced by advertising they see and hear. They don't bother to take accountability for their vote and do some actual research (which is free by the way) on the actual candidates. This explains why independents and third party candidates rarely stand a chance. The American public, of which I am a member, have nobody to blame but themselves for the politicians that are in place. Money can buy a lot of publicity and advertising, but the last time I checked, it still can't but a single American vote in an election.

    April 2, 2014 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  10. jm

    great, now the millionaires and billionaires in Hollywood can give as much as they want to the Dems

    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  11. Chris

    Goodbye democracy, hello plutocracy!

    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  12. Ctrygrl

    Alright it is now up to Congress, people can spend all they want so what we need is absolute reporting of who is spending what on whom. This doesn't make a lot of difference to the truly big spenders like the Koch brothers and the dude in Vegas, they already spend pretty much all they want. However what it does do is give the moderately rich the opportunity to buy a few senators and house members, especially through the PACs. The time has come for absolute laws detailing every single penny that is spent in any political campaign and who spent it. ALL political advertising should detail the top say 5 donors to the organization sponsoring it. A list of every single donor to any organization should be made freely available and no donations within one week of the end of the campaign. If we have to live with politicians that are bought, I want to know who is buying them.

    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  13. Chris

    RIP United States


    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  14. Rick

    Seems logical. Here comes the fear mongers decrying "big money", even though most of the country has willingly followed big money (in art, music, fashion, politics, sports, etc).

    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  15. mike

    Anyone who doesn't see that the .1% is waging open war on the 99.9% is delusional.

    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  16. Matt

    And we thought our elections were bought already.

    April 2, 2014 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  17. Brent

    This isn't even that significant of a ruling. What it means is that a person with a lot of money will be able to contribute a max of $5,200 to many candidates in an election cycle ($2,600 for primary, $2,600 for general). So, that person can theoretically support the candidates of the party he/she is aligned with (republican/democrat) without limit. But, each candidate only gets $5,200. The contributor therefore can't "buy" a candidate because he/she can only contribute up to a max of $5,200 (the rule which SCOTUS rightly left in tact to prevent bribery of the appearance of it). Anyone should be able to support any number of candidates they want in an election cycle, up to an individual limit. SCOTUS got it right.

    April 2, 2014 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  18. Syndrome Zed

    Freedom of Speech? Protecting a donor's freedom of speech would mean letting that donor buy advertising so he could shoot his mouth off to anyone who would want to listen. It has nothing to do with being able to buy an election – nor does the Constitution say anything about money being equated with speech. Where are those Constitutionalists who complain about everything else?

    April 2, 2014 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  19. Jim Jimson

    Why anyone who isn't a billionaire would ever consider voting Republican is a complete mystery.

    April 2, 2014 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  20. Craig in Pa.

    We have become the United States of F.U.B.A.R.! We have been in "bizzarro" mode for too long!

    April 2, 2014 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  21. pauleky

    Government for the wealthy and by the wealthy. Just like our forefathers intended. Seriously – RIP America.

    April 2, 2014 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  22. Just me

    Look, think about this! Individuals, and PAC's can spend all the money they want on a candidates election campaign. (Let those people waste their money!)You have social media, Facebook, Twitter etc. to get the word out who you want to see elected. That's all "FREE" public endorsement of a candidate, pretty savvy too.

    So if some Political Action Committee (PAC) comes out and supports some candidate, don't pay any attention to them and don't vote for the candidate they are endorsing.

    Set a challenge to the candidates who are running for office. Let them use Social media to get their message out. Not paid TV, and radio, or newspaper, magazine advertisements or a Super Pack buy thee election.

    Start picking your candidates. New ones, younger ones. Times get rid of all those old guard politicians. We need fresh new people in Government! So get moving and start picking your candidate, have them go on social media to start introducing themselves.

    Now spread the word and pick your candidates. Don't let PAC's do it.

    April 2, 2014 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  23. Carl Blanton

    All aboard the Titanic.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  24. MotoJB

    Nice...corruption and the ability to buy the political process is alive and well in Washington. Pathetic.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  25. humtake

    Eh. Those of us who have already gotten over the fact that any control our voting has is an illusion could care less about this. Let the rich play. I'm busy enjoying my own life with my family and friends.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
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