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. Bob

    It's funny how american people come here and comment about changes and how bad they are. But, they are so lazy they do nothing about it. Watch the news and see what the people in other countries do with corrupt leaders. American runs to there mobile devices and complain on facebook and twitter. Nothing will change and the politians get exactly what they want.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  2. Dali_70

    Goodbye democracy, we hardly knew you.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  3. SixDegrees

    Very, very deceptive front-page headline: "The Sky's The Limit!" with no mention of the retention of individual contribution caps.

    At least it managed to blow the "BREAKING NEWS!!!" of rehashed non-information about Flight 370 off the top spot for a moment.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  4. CAS

    This is just so wrong.................

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  5. Richard

    With the present Supreme Court, the poor and middle class don't stand a chance. A very few wealthy will now rule politics.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  6. LogicRules

    So laughable how stooges like Boehner cite the first amendment when defending the right to give millions to a candidate regardless of truth or legitimacy. To exclaim somehow that the current system doesn't allow a group to give enough to a candidate is absolute lunacy and basically ideology on steroids. Thats why all the conservative puppets voted to enable even more money to infiltrate politics

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  7. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Our highest court just sold us out.
    Yes they did.
    Yet again.

    April 2, 2014 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  8. Just me

    One more thing start keeping tract of the PAC's that are endorsing candidates. Those are the ones not to vote for.

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  9. Fair is Fair


    Bottom line is everyone still has ONE vote.
    None of this matters if everyone ignores the ads and the media lies and does an hour of research on their own.
    Soros and the Kochs can't buy your vote, they can only pay for ads.
    Exactly. But that would mean taking an hour away from American Idol, Dungeons & Dragons, or World of Warcraft. You ARE asking a bit much.

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  10. MaryM

    Just remember, not all the Justices were in favor of this crap. Look at the Justices that did rule in favor of this .,

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  11. Holly

    OMG another nail in the coffin! What is this country coming to? Seriously thinking of moving!! Our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  12. Viktor

    United States surpasses any and all other countries as the most corrupt country in the world.

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  13. Mike Hunt

    Seems right to me. Why can't I give money to whomever I want ? Liberals want the voting system all their own way. Illegals, church to voting booth, ACA voting registration, no ID ...

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  14. Nora

    Now instead of hearing 'Elect me, elect me' we'll here 'Buy me, buy me!'! It was almost that bad before but now they won't even have to bother being discrete about it!

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  15. Hadenuffyet

    For Sale: US Government

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  16. DK

    ...and the devolution into a plutocracy/corporatocracy accelerates.

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  17. truth squad

    Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah, Wah, cries the little liberals. For the last 5 years everything was perfect, there was no corruption.

    LOL. You guys are a JOKE. You think somehow when Democrats do something it's all pristine and without graft but when a Corporation does something it's automatically corrupt. You all are fools.

    You had a monopoly and excessive spending and contributions to campaigns for a season by squelching the Republicans and it did NOTHING to curtail graft, the gov't is still incompetent and has done nothing to reduce inequality, it's actually worse now then when Bush was in office.

    The little secret, and lie from above, was that unions always had the ability to contribute excessive amounts to politicians.

    April 2, 2014 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  18. MrVigor

    This is the worst day for democracy in our history. Second worst day? Citizens United - January 21, 2010.

    April 2, 2014 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  19. disgruntled

    They just sold out America to the highest bidder.

    April 2, 2014 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  20. Mkeb

    Money buys power, and power buys influence, and influence wins elections. Unfortunately that's the way the world works, and it is clearly evident that money in this situation has trumped doing the right thing.

    April 2, 2014 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  21. exodus84

    If you ever needed more evidence about why you can NEVER under ANY circumstance vote Republican you're looking right at it. The 5 "conservative" justices just put the final coffin nail into our democracy and fully handed our nation over to those with the most money. The Founders are all rolling in their graves today!

    April 2, 2014 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  22. KP

    Our democracy is now for sale to the highest bidder. This is the biggest threat to national security you could ever imagine.

    April 2, 2014 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  23. Charles Kochman

    Yea, F democracy. The rich win yet again.

    April 2, 2014 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  24. John

    Clearly, there are a lot of ignorant liberals who have no clue what the first amendment means (Except when they want to push a socialist agenda, then they want to be heard)

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  25. cris

    ....and the Koch brothers are dancing in the streets now. Maybe Shaun McCutcheon should invest his campaign contribution money in his company, dare I say, In his employees. He's going to run his company into the ground trying to buy elections. I'd like to meet this dude face to face. Thanks for screwing it up for middle class Americans Shaun. It's no coincidence that it was 5-4. Those Bush appointed Justices are paying major dividends for Republicans now. 5 Republican Justices sit on high.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
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