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. bczu

    Something needs to change. Sad that we are too lazy or uninspired to do it. Nothing will happen unless they start censoring the internet.....damn shame.

    April 2, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  2. steve

    The best government money can buy!!

    April 2, 2014 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  3. I told you so

    The best country in the world with the worst government in the world.

    April 2, 2014 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  4. samuraikatana1

    This is akin to the Supreme Court saying "ELECTIONS FOR SALE!"
    What an absolute sham.

    April 2, 2014 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  5. chris

    The same people who cry about this decision are the same people who celebrated the upholding of obamacare.

    Same court.

    You just cry when it is not what you want.

    April 2, 2014 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  6. Deez

    Hey Republicans, it's not a matter of "attacking success" it's a matter of what that "success" does with their money. Never forget that!

    If only the wealthy have the power and the wealthy represent 1%, what about the other 99%? Who will stand up for them? The group that wants more tax breaks for the wealthy?

    April 2, 2014 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  7. NealR2000

    What's with all this rabid Koch brothers stuff? Their wealth and political involvement pales in comparison to George Soros and other left-wing benefactors. I'm against any kind of way in which indididuals buy their way into politics, but if you ae going to only slam on side, you are simply being disingenuous.

    April 2, 2014 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  8. Eddie B

    we are now officially own by major corporations, America for the corporations by the corporations. Very sad.

    April 2, 2014 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  9. Dr Veruju

    My fellow US Citizens we have lost our country.

    April 2, 2014 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  10. Margaret

    Ah the best government money can buy. The little guy has no chance now.

    April 2, 2014 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  11. dina

    The Supreme Court has just elected the Koch Brothers to congress, and possibly to the presidency. The opinions of "We the people" are of less value that that of the Koch's. Is this democracy?

    April 2, 2014 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  12. janer52

    this is sickening. further deterioration of the process and more credence to the 1%. we are screwed.

    April 2, 2014 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  13. Randy, San Francisco

    The conservative SCOTUS justices just put out an "America For Sale" sign. What next? American politicians for sale to the highest anonymous donor from overseas....Russia, China, Iran?

    April 2, 2014 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  14. budshot

    Absolutely insane. This is what electing Republicans president gets us. They nominate simply the WORST justices, all who work for the party rather than for this country's better benefit. Talk about judicial activists!

    April 2, 2014 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  15. Linda

    BUT, if the other 99% actually vote, the 1%, can't really but our government--ok, maybe I am dreaming.

    April 2, 2014 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  16. Eardley Ham Woodbury, MN

    Now our democracy is truly for sale to the highest bidder. The SCOTUS has pulled the plug and our political system will become the tool of the 1%. Welcome to a plutocracy run by the aristocracy.

    April 2, 2014 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  17. Uncle Jerry

    As if it wasn't before, it is very clear our gov't is for sale.

    April 2, 2014 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  18. budshot

    Dean – still spreading the Soros lie, I see.

    April 2, 2014 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  19. racefan111

    Washington DC for sale...sky is blue...grass is green...

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

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  21. Coldfinger

    Isn't this swell? Just SWELL. What were they thinking!

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  22. John

    We really should just hold an auction. Government goes to the highest bidder. It's no surprise that the part of our government that is the furthest removed from any hint of democracy, the Supreme Court, has decided in favor of an oligarchy.

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  23. Andrew Jackson

    George Soros and his 7 billion dollars donated to leftists groups will be happy.

    OPERATION AMERICAN SPRING – Washington, D.C. in the cross-hairs – The Out-of-Control Government Leadership Must Be Stopped


    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  24. Laura

    We are now officially a Plutocracy. Despicable.

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  25. Dave

    So when they upheld Obummercare they were best, most enlightened justices in the land..... I hope they're prepared for another public berating from der leader.

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
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