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. Shane

    "Step right up (1%ers)!! Politicians for sale, and it's not even illegal anymore (not that we ever really enforced it)!! Place your bids!!"

    April 2, 2014 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  2. Crampon

    Good news, no more picking winners and losers by hidden donations. When people don't play by the rules, the rules need to go, to make it fair. Unions shouldn't have a monopoly on donating, and now they don't.

    April 2, 2014 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  3. Dems in PA

    Sure it's another blow to federal election laws being manipulated the Democratic party and the Obama administration: an administration elected by low-information voters is populated with low-information officials who are ignorant of the laws they are charged to enforce even though they often misuse them.

    April 2, 2014 11:55 am at 11:55 am |

    Major media outlet tells politician hey, we will support you if you agree to give us access to you if you are elected so we can use your celebrity to boost our ratings and promote our mutual political agenda. Dems don't complain about that

    April 2, 2014 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  5. Brian

    This idea that Americas is now for sale, is only true because WE the AMerican voters, choose to vote based on what we see on TV. People can donate as much money as they want, but each person can still spend time to research their canidates and make a decision. It's an easy scapegoat to blame money, when the real issue is YOU not choosing to educate yourself about issues of canidates.

    April 2, 2014 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  6. MaryM

    Not all the Justices were in favor of this ruling. It was the Conservatives Justices that ruled in favor of this.

    April 2, 2014 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  7. livingston

    American Government – bought and paid for by big money and corporate slime. Think they represent Americans? Yeah. Right.

    April 2, 2014 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  8. Department of UnAudited Defense

    First order of business is to never audit the Defense budget – Military Industrial Complex – Corporate America.

    April 2, 2014 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  9. whiterabbit3

    First Citizens United. Now this. It's official, we are all now owned by the Koch Brothers. David Koch was quoted at one point as saying “We’d like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway.”. Well, he just bought his wish. And you thought your vote mattered. Silly peons. Oh yes, this is about freedom of speech. Well, some of us are clearly more free than others. Your singular voice carries a lot further when you have $75 billion behind it, compared with millions of others of others who are each contributing only a few hundred (if that). This is the crux of the problem, there is simply no legitimate way the common man can compete with that (which leaves less civil alternatives; history has proven this). Granted, Chucky and Davy didn't do so well last election cycle even with all the $ they spent, but it's only a matter of time before they reach the tipping point of being able to completely buy a winning candidate. They've obviously already done it with SCOTUS (or should I say SCrOTUS). Shameful. We all had better watch out about criticizing the Kochs, Adelson, and the other mega plutocrats. It's only a matter of time before they start tracking our posts to these boards and getting us fired, arrested or even worse. Think I'm joking? This is what tyrants do.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  10. Fred

    time to put a petition on change.org with 100m signatures saying," change it back, NOW!!!!"

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  11. betterdays

    Time for another speech from the president criticizing the Supreme Court. Tune in later this afternoon.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  12. On Streetwise

    Shame on the US Supreme Court... Corruption and bribing is now legal, but that doesn't make it moral or just.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  13. Doyle Wiley, MI

    Once again the Supreme Court proves how useless they are.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  14. Joseph Brown

    What we're all REALLY afraid of is that the American People are no longer informed enough to critically analyze what they've heard.
    Our Founding Father's mentioned this was essential. Too bad we didn't heed them. Now we pay the price.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  15. Pierre Renault

    This court must be dismantled. It has too many corrupt elements from the Republican machine to function in any capacity relating to "justice for all".

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  16. oscarcz

    Very sad day and another 5-4 decision. More fodder for ultra rich to buy politicians. Not a good decision and leading this country down the wrong path leading to more division. Sad day, should say ANOTHER sad 5-4 day.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  17. RonTx

    Dave the SCOTUS was wrong on Obamacare and they are wrong here. This will open the gates on amount of money needed for election and politicians will need to make promises that they should not keep as it will ruin the country. The rich will demand more special treatment than they currently have. When the very rich pay a lower percentage than the middle class due to special treatment of their main income it is time to go to a flat tax with no exemptions or special treatment of any income. Everyone puts some skin in the game.

    April 2, 2014 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  18. Don

    The best thing about this is that it knock out Flight 370 at to the top story spot!

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  19. drjehr

    The best democracy money can buy. People, please show up in November and VOTE! These decisions are the result of 8 years of Reagan, followed by 4 years of Bush, and then 8 years later another 8 years of W. Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas are not mainstream legal thinkers. They are far to the right. The only way to undo this is to elect Democrats over and over until the Supreme Court has been changed.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  20. Keith

    Rolling down hill like a snowball headed for He//

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |

    Big wigs at major media outlet decide they want to support a particular political agenda or candidate, they then engage in a constant effort to push their agenda and/or politician in the news coverage, commentary, reporting and programming with all of their corporate resources and their monopoly on air time behind the effort. That is accepted by Dems, but let a group of citizens get together, form a corporation and buy ad time to counter the messages of the media giant and Dems get all bent out of shape Hypocrites much?

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  22. Jerry

    Great the system of allowing the super wealthy to fund candidates to promote thier ideals continues thus leaving the common man in the lurch.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  23. Ann

    The freedom of speech should not be compared with the freedom to donate. The former can be enjoyed by anybody, while the latter is only limited to a few among the masses.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  24. Crooked Bridge

    If voters would use knowledge and reason, they can ensure someone will not get their return on investment.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  25. Pacific moderate

    More Republican purchasing of votes. Gerrymandering, pandering to corporate and wealthy interests, with social issues used to bait their low-information voters into reelecting them all leads to preserving their economic interests over the interests of the country and world.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
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