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.

[twitter-follow screen_name='politicalticker']

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. Mike Hunt

    The only corrupt politician you can buy with $5200 is liberal. They come cheap.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  2. Tampa Tim

    Supreme Court justices should be forced to wear the corporate logos of the corporations who bought them, on their robes.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  3. Evangelos

    Bribery = "free speech" and corporations = "persons".


    Orwell and Huxley were optimists, it turns out.

    April 2, 2014 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  4. bee13zzz

    Why-oh-why would SCOTUS open the very floodgates that were built to contain it? In the shadow of so much government, corporate & banking corruption, why would they remove the voting power from the common man & woman and place it in the lap of the ultra-rich? It just doesn't make sense...unless this was their objective.

    This action creates an undeniable impression that the democratic voting system of the United States is rigged in favor of the wealthy and that the Supreme Court is but a tool of the rich. The average citizen has, for all intents & purposes, been removed from the voting process with this revelation. They have handed the virtual keys of the United States election process to the seat of corruption!

    April 2, 2014 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  5. Timothy C

    Campaign finance limits should apply evenly to all parties and groups: George Soros, the Koch brothers, unions, etc. There's no reason for any group to have the legal authority to spend unlimited amounts to support a candidate. I don't want to see our democracy become even more of an oligarchy.

    April 2, 2014 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  6. RJMA

    Good. "Campaign finance reform" has no goal other than to keep the two party system alive. Gee, I wonder who would want there to be caps on the amount that any one person could give? Could it be the groups that already have large, established donor networks? Now, one person with good ideas can go find funding without having to convince 50 thousand strangers that they should donate and get their message out. Let the people hear all the ideas, not only those from the two major parties.

    April 2, 2014 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  7. Cal

    Hello capitalist democracy – democracy to the highest single bidder! Freedom of speech as long as you can pay for it! No voice for the "tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free" without cold hard cash.

    April 2, 2014 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  8. Muwarr90

    And the conservative radicalization of the US continues. Nothing will be allowed which in any way impedes the actions or the power of the wealthy.

    April 2, 2014 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  9. Ben

    Its amazing how many people read the article, comment, argue, without a clue as to how the judicial branch works. Take 30 minutes. Read the constitution. Read Wikipedia about the supreme court...anything...

    April 2, 2014 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  10. Ken

    Robert – I was with you until the end. "...put back into Government programs to help the poor, sick or disabled". I have absolutely no problem helping the sick and disabled (espeically those brave men and women who were injured in the line of duty fighting for our country. The poor on the other hand, do what the majority of the others in this country have done and either get educated or learn a vocation that will pay you a comfortable salary. We need to stop coddling these folks and make them go out an EARN their keep like the rest of us have done. There was a story on the news yesterday in DC about a kid in S.E. DC (for those that don't know the roughest part of D.C.) being raised by a single parent that has academic scholarships to attend any of the IVY league schools he wants to attend. The point I'm trying to make is if he can accomplish this than any kid can accomplish this in any city across this nation. People need to take responsibility for themselves and for their children. Get them off the streets and have them open a book.

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  11. rufus

    The amount of money given to support a political candidate is one form of support. What if Congress passed a law saying working more than 100 hours on a campaign was prohibited? After all, we don't want the successful candidate to be beholden to the dedicated campaign worker. Would the people who disagree with this SCOTUS decision approve of limits on the number of hours someone could work on a campaign? How about a limited number of bumper stickers or a limited number of conversations you could have with others in an effort to obtain their support? When you spend money as opposed to time and effort why is this singled out?

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  12. drjehr

    There's a revolution every two years in November. This decision can be undone only by changing the Supreme Court and that is done by electing Democrats to the White House and Congress.

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  13. Mike Smith

    Never thought I would side with the liberal Justice, but I sure do on this one. Politicians to the highest bidder and to hell with the people we promised to represent. And by the way the Liberal Companies have the most to donate.

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  14. Whereisthemiddle?

    How can this happen when only 1% of the country wants it? The question is now how are we going to explain to our elected officials that we don't want it and they have to find a way to prevent it from happening without giving away our individual 1st amendment rights. It's time to change the definition of the corporation.

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  15. WhiteISaColor

    Dali_70....we have not had a Democracy in quite some time! Just because you vote on issues does not a Democracy make. They vote in North Korea and they voted in Saddam Hussein's ruled Iraq and they tell us that Crimea just voted to join Russia. It's a FARCE and a SHAM. It's the same here in the USA too! Our representatives in the Government no longer care about what the majority want and when they do, it gets overturned by what 5 people on the Supreme Court. This is why a mere 37% of the USA will vote in the 2014 mid-term elections and it's why only 50% to 55% vote in the Presidential elections. Your opinion, your vote doesn't matter, they are going to do what they want regardless and then tell you it's exactly what the "American People" want. That is nowhere near being a Democracy, where the majority should rule.

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  16. Steve-O

    who should we BUY next?

    April 2, 2014 11:59 am at 11:59 am |

    You can't limit what people can spend on advertising, so why don't we limit the amount the media outlets can charge for political advertising. The airwaves belong to the people and we can limit the amounts that NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, etc.. charge to air campaign ads and require that they give equal access to all seeking to engage in political advertising. $1500.00 per ad and everyone that cares to air one gets a total of two ad slots in prime time and 5 in non prime time.Order of slots picked by lottery conducted by the FEC on live TV. Media outlets are banned from supporting any political candidate or agenda. Factual reporting only.

    Get the influence of the media fat cats out of politics.

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  18. George Dixon

    215 Days to a GOP Senate

    Koch donations = $9,831,715 in total, can be compared in the same time frame as the following contributions, of evil green money, made to Democrats:

    $31,342,403 AFT (teachers union)
    $31,640,067 Laborers Union

    $33,824355 IBEW (electrical worker's union)
    $36,433,925 NEA
$37,151289 SEIU

    $45,820,853 AFSCME
    "Mandatory Union Dues: Buying the Democrat Party for Lily White Liberalism"
    So, now you cannot claim to be ignorant any more.

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  19. I AM

    It prevents corruption in campaigns and politics? HAHAHA that's funny, NOTHING is going to prevent that, so why compromise our rights to free speech? That was the real travesty.

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  20. Brad

    Great, I'm gonna run right out and by me some politicians.

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  21. Badly-Bent

    Why is our Supreme Court so dead set against democracy?

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  22. Jeff

    Well now we can finally have the best government money can buy

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    1.the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.
    2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.
    3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  24. Appalachian American

    Is this the final nail in the plutocracy coffin? How much longer will the populace continue to support an unethical two-party system that erroneously refers to itself as a democracy, is supposed to be a constitutional republic, and has absolutely turned into a society-destroying plutocracy? This corrupt two-party system has shipped the jobs overseas, created an ever-increasing wealth gap, an ever-increasing need for social welfare in order to keep the population from getting restless/rebelling, and an ever-increasing debt.......this is how a society fails. Thank you, SCOTUS. You are absolute IDIOTS!

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  25. I AM

    It prevents corruption in campaigns and politics? That's funny, NOTHING is going to prevent that, so why compromise our rights to free speech? That was the real travesty.

    April 2, 2014 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36