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. Anonymous

    Great, so the TV ads will be non stop

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

    WTF seriously. Screw this country. They should be flogged for this decision.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  3. hymie schupel

    This ruling just took the American Way of majority rules and chucked it out the window. The Supreme Court has changed America forever because politicians can now purchase their elected seat in government. So now when you look to see who is running in the primary elections, all candidates will be vetted by Corporate America, not the People.

    Be sure to say Goodbye to a government of the People, for the People and by the People.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  4. Grumpster

    America is officially on sale to the highest bidder.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  5. Joe M

    So Democrats have no money? There are no Democrat millionaires/billionaires pumping money into their party? You people who think the democratic party is some benevolent entity that cares soley for the american people are delusional.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  6. cal

    We are supposed to have a government of laws instead of a government of men. One day these old fools will die and maybe this country can appoint decent men who will do what is better for this country. these 5 are nothing but ideologues and God help this country until their useless butts have passed.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  7. rrdude

    Supreme Court running amuck!

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  8. Seth

    And the George W. Bush legacy continues to destroy our democracy.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  9. maximusvad

    The United States...bought and paid for by the highest bidder. SUpreme Court Justices....paid off.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  10. ALLuh

    The corrupt, corporate owned, Taco Bell Nachos Supreme Court has officially ruined America.

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

    lessee, corporations are individuals. and money is speech. at least 5 justices are showing serious signs of dementia.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  12. Mike Hunt

    "another blow to the twisted federal voting laws that favor liberals...."
    ahhhh so sorry.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  13. Queen Amadela

    This is against everything that this country was founded on that all men are created equal. I am outraged!

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  14. patriot

    The dirty tricks liberals played up to this point are finally gone ONE by ONE and we now have a level playing field, now the contributions to democrats from unions and unknown foreign sources are no longer an advantage for Obama and his corruption machine.

    April 2, 2014 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  15. Dude

    Finally we have equality between corporations and ultra rich people.

    That's everyone right?

    Corporations, wealthy and umm . . .

    Yup that's everyone.

    April 2, 2014 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  16. The Truth Hurts

    I have to laugh at all the hand-wringing going on. How do you think people have been getting elected for CENTURIES? If anything, this ruling lifts the veil a little bit...

    April 2, 2014 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  17. The End of Democracy

    So who wants to buy a war?
    The store for selling the lives of US citizens is officially open.
    Want to all the young men and women of the USA not born to wealth?
    Slave nation USA can do that for you too!
    Think big. No limit USA is here to sell.

    April 2, 2014 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  18. Gop USa

    All this does is allow the rich to own our political system, this is crap and somthing needs to be done about this, I am a conservative and do not agree with any of this. This clearly will take the power away from the average Joe and give it all to the rich.

    April 2, 2014 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  19. kanneroo

    It can't be free speech if it isn't speech available to all people – the argument "Anyone has the ability to give as much as they choose to" is irrelevant if not everyone has the money to choose to give. It can't be protected as a fundamental right, if it isn't available to everyone. Now there is nothing to stop the wealthy from buying up all the remaining political power. Yes, not "donation"... purchase.

    April 2, 2014 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  20. more2bits

    Oh boy more corruption on the way. Buy your votes is the norm in America.

    April 2, 2014 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  21. Brian

    This is the GOP's last stand at survival. If they have unlimited spending and still lose, then its Bye Bye...

    April 2, 2014 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  22. Culturechange

    In a time of epic corruption, the court is solving the corruption problem.....by legalizing it. The poeple (and Congress) should make these decisions on limits. Not the courts.

    April 2, 2014 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  23. Semper Cogitatus

    I wonder how many of you will be offended by Soros increasing donations.

    April 2, 2014 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  24. Jack Hoffman

    Big business and special interest can continue to buy the best politicians available.

    April 2, 2014 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  25. John

    The conservatives on this court are joke. They don't mind that wealthy people buy elections. What a disgrace.

    April 2, 2014 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
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