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. Anonymous

    does this mean no more political debates on tv?

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

    ProtectingFirst Amendment Rights?? That is just BS to cover the fact that this supreme court and congress are so corrupt. They continue to ensure that the rich and their corporations can buy elctions. This Country is going he way Rome went into total ruin.

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  3. Jolat

    Unlimited contributions should come with full disclosure of all donors. It's simple.

    April 2, 2014 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  4. Marc J

    Let's dispense with this first amendment sham justification and move directly to the objective: allocate votes based on income!

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  5. Ken

    Inthemiddle – Well said. I think a greaat place to start would be to only pay their salaries whlile in office. Once they are out they will no longer collect that salary and benefits. I think that alone would get rid of a great deal of the riff raff and leave us with people with much higher moral stanards who are there to do a job and not simpy there to line their pockets.

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  6. Tim

    LOL....I never heard any libs complaining about the money George Soros provides....get overit..

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  7. betterdays

    So begins the flood of donations from hip-hop artists, actors and professional athletes.

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  8. central1

    I understand the Democratic / Liberal opposition to this ruling to be this:
    Union money = Good. Corporate money = bad
    George Soros money = good Koch money = bad....
    got it..... Hypocrites

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  9. ooh yaa

    This is horrible news. Our country is in bad shape.

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

    Let us not make a big fuss. Well, Mitt outspent any one in History. What happened?
    It is the united we all stand. Just get out, vote. These can never be sold out. Right?
    I urge every one to vote. Please take your driver license, passport, birth certificate–go two hours before, some
    Idiotic states made restrictions. We can correct them later, good luck, god bless!!!

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  11. Marie MD

    The US can be bought. Thanks to the old farts on the SCOTUS (five anyway).
    Just like there's no reason to look at voting rights either. What's next? Everyone to the back of the bus?

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  12. Portdal

    The US of A is in big, serious trouble.

    April 2, 2014 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  13. Jolat

    Of the top 10 donor groups of the last 10 years, 8 of them were labor unions and 90% of their money went to democrats. All this does is level the playing field.

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  14. Ruben

    It's apparent that OUR government will NEVER stand up for what is obviously right. It is our obligation as the people to stand up and change this horrible system, which has manipulated and exploited every institution for greedy agendas. America needs a serious revolution now, or we will watch every "liberty" slowly stripped away and our children will suffer the consequences of our ignorance.

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  15. US Citizen

    Not only does corruption run in our government but in our highest court.

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  16. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    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."
    That's a ridiculous and untenable stretch.
    Bricks and apples.
    Writing and giving.....but wait, maybe he meant writing as in writing checks....no?

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  17. Lynda/Minnesota

    Memo to David and Charles Koch:

    Job Well Done. Please proceed with your hostile take over of our United States government.


    We the little people.

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  18. Silence DoGood

    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.
    To see this problem, imagine your favorite candidate next election is on the way fame and glory and has 70% polling and life is good. Now imagine one month before the election some rich person/group mounts a smear campaign – all lies and false accusations and completely swamps out your candidates speeches and good words. And runs 100x times the TV and web ads just because they have unlimited money and no responsibility for truth or honor because no politician "approves this ad" officially. Now how do you feel?

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  19. CosmicC

    @Ken, stop drinking the kool aide. All most poor people want is an opportunity. They need a sound education. They need affordable child care and a living wage (sorry, but the minimum wage is not a living wage, not even at 80 hours a week). "Get them off the streets and have them open a book" is an arrogant, aggressive statement that ignores many realities. We have watched the conservatives in congress spend the last three decades dismantling social support systems that were proven to work. The result has been a rise in the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Face it, when you are saying that you want the poor to help themselves, you are saying that you don't want to pay your share of your benefits from the system.

    April 2, 2014 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  20. Harry

    The Supreme Court still can't figure out the difference between Amendment rights and ABUSE of those rights.

    Just like the 2nd which allows citizens to bear arms including military weapons, an Amendment written 235 years ago when militias were necessary before organized police forces were available – the 1st Amendment is being used as a scape goat for PAC's during elections with no regard for common sense.

    When will dawn shine on marblehead???

    April 2, 2014 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  21. Matt

    I love how much liberals defend free speech... until it no longer benefits them. THEN, it is somehow unconstitutional, corrupt and senseless.

    April 2, 2014 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  22. central1

    Please let me know when you are done moderating a comment regarding donating money ????

    April 2, 2014 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  23. liberal disease

    big victory for unions today! they can continue to buy elections..

    April 2, 2014 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  24. richard in texas

    Ken, "any kid can achieve this" . ??? Referring to the Ivy league phenom. Wow amazing how people think everyone is an automon that just needs to push the "right buttons" and puff your an achiever/success.or your a businessman. News flash... in psychology its call unique genetic make up. In other words not everybody has the same aptitude. People crack me up.... like people want to be unemployed, homeless and hungry. The majority of people want to work a decent livable wage. but multicorporations have raped this country through the political system. Todays ruling is just one more case in point.

    April 2, 2014 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  25. KarmicBonds

    Great! Now the votes will be bought,

    April 2, 2014 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
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