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.

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"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. BeverlyNC

    Candidates for Sale. Votes for Sale. Buy me an election and I, the People's representative, will betray the worthless People who I only focus on when I need their votes, to get your millions of dollars kept secret and run through fake non-profit organizations
    The is a corrupt Supreme Court who steps all over the Constitution and stretches it to meet the specific wish list of the Republican Party.
    This is going to hurt Republicans as we make sure every voter knows they cannot trust any Republican because they will say anything to get elected, then discard you, and work completely for the corporations and wealthy conservative donors who want to run our government and destroy the rights of the People set forth in our Constitution as a nation FOR and BY the PEOPLE.
    This is the very reason we need ALL Republicans voted out in November. All they have to offer is corruption, hate, lies, bigotry, corporate-owned puppets, ensured betrayal of the People, and destruction of the rights, the programs and even the humanity of our nation for its own People.

    April 2, 2014 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  2. Badly-Bent

    Why is our Supreme Court so dead-set against democracy?

    April 2, 2014 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  3. Hilikus

    Well, this is good news for China and Russia. Now they can donate all they want to influence our government.

    April 2, 2014 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  4. Beez

    COngressmen, Senators...get you hot, fresh Cngressmen and Senators...all to the highest bidder...Wow, and we thought buying and selling people in America was ilegal, thanks SCOTUS

    April 2, 2014 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  5. jeff

    Whom ever has the most money is the most qualified.

    April 2, 2014 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  6. Alison P

    Again, more laws that make zero sense. Political donations should be capped for everyone, organization, business, etc. This isn't a political party affiliation issue, but common sense.

    April 2, 2014 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  7. Rain

    Well, that's gross!

    April 2, 2014 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  8. frank

    "Justices strike down political donor limits" – aka – "the best votes money can buy".

    April 2, 2014 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  9. Roggy

    How does giving $5200 to a politicians campaign equal corruption? It's not that1 politician is getting millions it's a peson being allowed to suppot as many candidates as they want. If that is corruption, then every time the Democrats use union labor to get out support for the Democratic tcket is just as corrupt. Donating ones time is just as valuable as handing over cash. Hypocrits!

    April 2, 2014 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  10. claudius1964

    ...and the rich still get richer, and the poor not so much.

    April 2, 2014 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  11. Ron L

    While I personally don't like the fact that more and more money is being poured into the political system, the BOTTOM line is we need 75% or more Americans to VOTE!!! in EVERY!!! election. I firmly believe 30% of America is hard core Democrat about 25% is hard core of Republican. The other 55% are moderate like myself seeing some good ideas from both parties. THE PROBLEM is, of that 45% only half or even less PARTICIPATES in the process by doing something as simple as voting. I won't go into how the Republican Parties governors and state legislators are working hard at making it HARDER to vote) The ONLY reason this money has so much influence is the MODERATES do not vote enough to offset the extremism in both parties. People need to complain "AND PARTICIPATE" otherwise things are going to get more extreme and man I just don't think many of us want to experience that............

    April 2, 2014 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  12. penguin

    I hate the ruling because of its affect on elections, but I agree that limiting donations is unconstitutional. We must keep in mind that the function of the Court is not to rule on whether the law is good or bad, but whether it is Constitutional. If our voters were more intelligent the influence of political ads would be greatly decreased

    April 2, 2014 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  13. Jim Jimson

    American Democracy is up for sale to the highest bidders.

    April 2, 2014 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  14. memo2

    Really then what's going on with the past corruption ?.

    April 2, 2014 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  15. betterdays

    Time to put my marketing degree to good use: Come one, come all, and spend, spend, spend! We'll get your political message out to the masses at reasonable rates. I will show no favoritism, and no one will get preferential treatment. One ideology's dollar is as good as another's. As a matter of fact, you may wish to raise the stakes when countering that argument we just broadcast for your opponent... Oh happy day!

    April 2, 2014 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  16. I AM

    "enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy"? Too funny! Like politicians are such upstanding citizens. So lets stomp all over or right to free speech so we can pretend that we are having an affect on campaign abuse that is going to happen anyway.

    April 2, 2014 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  17. Patriot

    America is now an oligarchy, that’s where the Supreme Court and a few billionaires have taken us.

    April 2, 2014 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  18. srcactus

    The constitution predates the "laws" and or Regulations of the pandering political class! Get over it. We have seen Obama unilaterally deem laws into being that have not been granted review by congress and Obama is not the first or only to ignore the constitution.

    April 2, 2014 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  19. commentor

    "enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy"? Too funny! Like politicians are such upstanding citizens. So lets stomp all over or right to free speech so we can pretend that we are having an affect on campaign abuse that is going to happen anyway.

    April 2, 2014 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  20. Me

    Donate half the money donated to pay some of the national debt or something else that benefits the country as a whole. Talk about backing up the talk from the get go.

    April 2, 2014 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  21. bee13zzz

    Why-oh-why would SCOTUS open the very floodgates that were built to contain voting corruption? 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 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  22. inthemidddle

    As a ex Republican turned Independent voter I sorry to see the Supreme Court make what in my opinion is one of their worst mistakes of the last ten years. People already have the impression the Republican party is the party of the rich, which is far from the truth. The Supreme Courts conservative side has done more harm to the Republicans than they could believe. This country needs to have some way from having large money groups Buy and Sell the people in politics. We the people need some way to start Term Limits also to cut the people in Washington from making politics their life long job. This country needs new people in Washington from both the Republicans and the Democrats. Vote Independent and make both partys work for your vote.

    April 2, 2014 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  23. Michael

    The US- welcome the land of third-world elections bought to you by Republican activist judges and the Koch brothers

    April 2, 2014 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  24. njb902

    If the big guys can donate as much as they want what happens to the other 99%?

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  25. Brendan May

    Representation for only the highest bidders. Money is not speech.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
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