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. Norm

    Well I guess there is no reason to waste time hoping for any of our country's hundreds of major problems to get fixed.

    It's all about who can make the most money before the end now.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  2. Mel Stricker

    The Republicans should do really well with this decision since they are the party of the rich

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  3. Debbie

    The U S has the best government money can buy!
    Intelligence takes a backseat to wealth.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  4. jp

    Time for revolution.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  5. Jeff

    I don't see this as a problem. Let people give as much money as they want to the candidates of their choice.

    Just because some politicians use that money as incentive to offer favors doesn't mean we should prevent people from donating. People should be allowed to support the candidates they want.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  6. WhiteCorruption

    White western countries, 1st world living with 3rd world corruption values.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  7. mike mcdickey

    This is a great decision. In an unrestricted capitalist society, people should want to make so much money that they have more than enough money to spend on necessities and even luxuries. It doesn't matter that the the divide continues to grow between the haves and have nots. It doesn't matter that every year it gets harder and harder for the average family to afford to give their kids a college and post-graduate education. The few super rich should have so much that they have enough left over to buy elections and influence and can control legislation. The government should be for the rich. What's the problem?

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  8. Mark

    Perfect, US democracy is for sale to the highest bidder. What a screwed up country.

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  9. Gopi

    When did money replace speech ?

    April 2, 2014 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  10. Anthony

    I see this overtook the missing flight coverage on the front page headline!!! It's a shame you didn't think that 7.1 million ACA signups was worth it yesterday but, nevertheless, welcome back to the real world CNN! 🙂

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  11. matey

    Aboit donations. How can you control the limit.. I am limited to a certain amount. BUT: there are 10 people in my family. How about I donate to my party of choice in each of the names of the people in my family. What about in each of my friends names????

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  12. ProperVillain

    America. Continuing it's fine tradition of being the best country you can buy. Welcome to the plutocracy people...

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  13. dl

    Can we change the language? Donor->Briber, PAC->Corruption Commitees, campaign reform->reformation smokescreen, politician->Paid Corporate Govt stooge

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  14. Joe Blow

    I believe the constitution provides the right to free speech, not the right to SHOUT!

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  15. Dpg

    Hello....it's been a business since 1776

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |

    Has anyone realized that with this ruling, I could now fund, up to $2,600 per election per candidate, for as many candidates that I choose rather than having to split it? Have you realized that, with this ruling, I can now give $2,600 to a replication and democratic? Yes, both. I may like the republican as the Attorney General in my state, while liking an incumbent democrat for Governor. Why should I be limited of supporting both with the maximum?

    The article is a little misleading. By saying that an individual could donate $3.6 million dollars in a campaign cycle, they conveniently leave out that EVERY candidate (republican, democrat, independent, green, libertarian) would get the $2,600 maximum. I guess we'll just be outraged that a wealthy person could actually donate $3.6 million dollars, without thinking about what it would actually mean; every candidate receiving the maximum donation.

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  17. Steve

    This is terrible news. We need to pass a Constitutional amendment in order to bypass this terrible decision. The vast majority of American citizens would support a limit on political contributions... but politicians wouldn't.

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  18. nonono

    Why can't people understand that this is bad irregardless of party affiliation? It really isn't that hard to come to that conclusion.

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  19. A. Goodwin

    More proof that republicans can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. What a joke.

    April 2, 2014 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  20. betterdays

    Less than 24 hours later, all those Obamacare cheers have turned to tears. Golly gee.

    April 2, 2014 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  21. JOHN

    This is a sad day in America, money has almost completly taken over politics. What this ruling really does is totally cement the failing 2 party system. Now its only going to be that much harder for any 3rd party to win anything. Even the idea of political parties is a bad idea in general. Congress is supposed to be representing the areas of the country they come from not towing any line for their party, this is the major problem today this is what has ruined the USA.

    April 2, 2014 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |

    I guess CNN doesn't want anybody to actually read the decision, because they don't post a link.

    April 2, 2014 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  23. J Russ


    Why is our Supreme Court so dead set against democracy?

    That's easy, because we have a constitutional republic not a democracy. If you can show me where in the constitution there's a limit on money that can be contributed to candidates please let us know.


    April 2, 2014 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  24. paul321

    We have the best democracy and legal system that money can buy!

    April 2, 2014 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  25. JerseyJeff

    This is a mistake.

    I understand the logic of the decision, but the effects are disastrous on US politics.
    There needs to be a way to get big money out of politics so politicians depend on regular voters more and less on corporations or big donors because the system as it is perverts political incentives.

    April 2, 2014 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
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