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. Russ Huebel

    George Will's wet dream is becoming a reality.

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

    And democracy takes a backseat to plutocracy, once again. Our country is unraveling, bit by bit.

    April 2, 2014 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  3. mike

    Wow. Finally! It took an act of Supreme Court justice to derail CNN's non stop coverage of s Flight 370, Well done Chief Justice John Roberts!

    April 2, 2014 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  4. Fish

    We are witnessing the death throes of democracy and the ONLY remedy is public financing of campaigns, perhaps we could sample it on a small scale first and then try a national election. But we must get to one person one vote!!!

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  5. Sand

    Anyone that believes the constitution protects the right to bribe but doesn't protect the right to peaceful protest should not serve in government. At the same time these 'Justices' continue to protect corruption as 'free speech' while striking down protests like Occupy Wall Street as a dubious exception. Does anyone still believe the Supreme Court's broad, self defined and unchecked power still protects the rights of common citizens?

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  6. Anonymous

    Just as I thought it couldn't get worse.

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  7. Dick Drewes

    OH MY GOD. A CNN Headline which is not about Flight 370

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  8. gmclenith

    No limits on politicians being bought by big money to serve big money. Then, it's time to put term limits on the justices.

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  9. DaveL

    As a life-long Independent I'm sorry to say that the Conservative side of this Supreme Court has finally gone completely off it's rocker. Justice Roberts has to start taking a look at what his legacy will be when he is done. They have gone against the precedents of many of the courts before them as if they know better and are turning this democracy into a joke. It will be a pretty sad legacy you leave Justice Roberts.

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  10. Bob C.

    @Mel Stricker:

    Hey Mel: you might want to note that 7 out of the 10 wealthiest members of Congress are Democrats.

    April 2, 2014 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  11. TiltedSystem

    The political system is so off base and skewed towards the rich. The average little fish doesn't have a voice anymore.

    Welcome to a system stacked there by the rich and special interests.

    This country is becoming a joke for the normal person

    April 2, 2014 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  12. Peter Gerdeman

    What a tragedy – but not surprising coming from the Supremes. Money is not Free Speech. These excesses are a further transition from Democracy to Oligarchy – which none have lasted over time. For now, the few, with money, then make influence and decisions over the many. And as in history – the people will rise up against this – and it won't be a cheery discussion on the polo grounds...

    April 2, 2014 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  13. Taken4granted

    Why anyone would say only the rich Republicans will benefit on this issue? Warren Buffet is not a Republican. And there are also rich Dems, they only hide in the covers of the party. So it is nonsense that one party benefits. The issue I have is that they will use their monies on negative ads instead of just using their monies to promote like creating jobs and so forth. That is where I think their monies should go.

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

    Public office to the highest bidder. Ah.... democracy!!

    April 2, 2014 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  15. BOK_in_Larksville

    I don't think anyone should be allowed to contribute money towards a specific political candidate.. Any political donation should go into a bucket to be used equally between each and every candidate running for office.. The only choice you should have, is whether the donation is going to local, county, state, federal election.. Money buys elections, not the best candidate.. Take for example pizza.. Domino's Pizza is utterly disgusting, but because the company throws so much money at marketing & advertising, they are one of the major players, even though their product sucks..

    April 2, 2014 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  16. Michael

    The Bizzaro World the Republican Party: "Corporations are people too" and "money is speech". And these people think of themselves as patriots? Not!

    April 2, 2014 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    Money isn't speech.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  18. nik green

    Plutocracy and nepotism is here to stay. The only people now qualified to successfully compete in US elections are those with access to vast wealth, which is required in order to sustain our insanely long campaign cycle. It's the end of our once (allegedly) free republic, as we know it.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  19. Jimh77

    It's all about greed and back alley deals. Total corruption.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  20. Bob C.


    Of course, you would have no problem with George Soros trying to take over the government, now would you?

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  21. andreas

    game over folks, time to ditch the keyboard for the garden fork and bring back the guillotine.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  22. lineman4225

    This and a number of other rulings have been decided on a vote of 5-4. If the next new member of the Supreme Court is a conservative the conservative rulings will stand and the liberal rulings will go. If the next new member of the Supreme Court is a liberal the liberal rulings will stand and the conservative rulings will go. This will continue until the Court is again made up of all moderates.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  23. Mike

    I keep hearing all of this BS about constitutional rights. Since when is money equal to speech? You don't say anything when you pay off your politicians. Except maybe "you owe me". You have every right in the world to campaign for the candidates of your choice but, money is not speech. The SCOTUS as well as both parties have been bought & paid for people. Now it's even easier. Wake up people!!!

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  24. Gudge

    This is what happens when you ask lawyers to get involved. It's never about what's good for the country. Is there anything that is not for sell in America? Very sad.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  25. The REAL Truth...

    @bee13zzz – 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!
    Oh so true.. shades of 1984.. all men are created equal, but some (the wealthy) are MORE EQUAL than others.. !!
    The Grand Oligarchy Party is corrupting our government at all levels.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
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