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. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    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.
    First Citizens United brought to court courtesy of the Republicans.
    Now Citizen Unlimited.
    Again, initiated and supported by Republicans.
    Yes there's a pattern here by Republicans but just as importantly elected Democrats aren't really throwing a hissy fit
    over this either.
    An overewhelming willingness to be bought off by BOTH sides.

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

    Throw all the money you want to get dishonest people elected. Something very wrong with that concept.

    April 2, 2014 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  3. mark

    This include the Clinton Library?

    April 2, 2014 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Something else that sets THIS President apart from any other, and certainly any current politician taking advantage of these rulings.

    April 2, 2014 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  5. fidgetwidget

    This ruling is nothing short of catastrophic.

    April 2, 2014 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  6. so much for honesty

    Welcome back to the 1800 and a whole new set of much more powerful robber barons.

    April 2, 2014 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |

    Who cares what Obama has to say about the subject, he is one of the worst offenders when it comes to corruption in politics

    April 2, 2014 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  8. bp

    What's the point of becoming rich if you can't buy anything you want, including elections?

    April 2, 2014 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  9. Okie

    Juan in El Paso

    So it was a great victory when 5-4 was on the side of the ACA, but when it is 5-4 on an issue liberal disagree with "the Supream Court is full of clowns and is a joke" according to the comments here.


    It's not a matter of liberal vs. conservative. I've seen some posts here from some pretty staunch "conservatives" like rick mcdaniels and fair is fair. The issue is that money corrupts, on both sides of the aisle. No one class should be better represented than another based on income, or lack thereof. All candidates should be limited to the same dollar amount to spend on campaigns and should not be for sale. This just like the citizens united ruling is basically saying "whoever has deeper pockets wins". It's applicable to both sides of the aisle my friend

    April 2, 2014 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  10. ArthurP

    Bible rules education.
    Money rules government.

    Why is the US trying so hare dot be the riches 3rd world country on the planet?

    April 2, 2014 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  11. Jimmy

    Statistics show that campaign spending doesn't necessarily yield results. There's plenty of examples of people raising large sums of money and losing. I believe the correlation isn't strong at all. This was touched on in Freakonomics.

    April 2, 2014 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  12. Bob

    Will someone from the "right" please provide me with the definition of "activist judges"? Thanks!

    April 2, 2014 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  13. Norm

    Oh man I am so angry about this.

    April 2, 2014 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  14. betterdays

    As we are constantly reminded, all of the rich, successful and high-minded people are in the blue states so this shouldn't be a problem, right?

    April 2, 2014 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  15. Charles O

    Have a Koch and a smile. It's official...the US Government has come out of the closet and is now officially owned by big business. Your elected officials no longer have to pretend otherwise.

    April 2, 2014 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  16. Rick C.

    First the so-called Citizens United, now this. Go ahead and tell me this country isn't for sale to the highest bidder. The middle class is so screwed.

    April 2, 2014 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  17. Jim Jimson

    The only way to undo this is to vote for a Democrat in the next election.

    April 2, 2014 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  18. Jim

    The GOP, party of corruption and greed.

    April 2, 2014 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  19. a

    Plutocracy is officially here.

    April 2, 2014 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  20. Andy Botwin, Baton Rouge, LA

    Most federal judges get appointed and confirmed based on their political connections, fund raising efforts, and contributions to politically partisan candidates. We shouldn't expect most Supreme Court justices to bite the hand that fed them.

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  21. US Citizen

    Not only does corruption run in our government t also in our highest court.

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  22. Qwen

    Politicians have learned that they can buy your vote. The only way to combat this is to stop allowing politicians to buy your vote.

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  23. QS

    The single most important reason to continue electing progressive-minded presidents into the foreseeable future is to diminish the conservative side of the Supreme Court to the point of non-existence!

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  24. Kurt Wiberley

    In this ruling, the court has essentially legalized political corruption and put democracy in the US in severe danger.

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  25. PeteD

    Failure of the libs trying to supress cadidate support.

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