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)

    Now do you understand why poverty is injustice. Only the rich can buy their future as more and more the working man has given up. Soon the rich will understand why a healthy middle class is vital to their own livelihoods. They the rich are the poorest humans and they can't understand what enriches the being is not money, but soon they will.

    April 2, 2014 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  2. bee13zzz

    Another piece of the puzzle falls into place & it's looking more & more like OLIGARCHY. At some point the rich will push too far & the populace will rise up against the corruption. It's a nasty recipe the world has seen over & over & over.


    April 2, 2014 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  3. shawn l

    Conservative court once again destroying what was left of the political process that make sense.

    April 2, 2014 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  4. max

    well how about a constitutional amendment on this matter, problem solved.

    April 2, 2014 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  5. smc

    Seems like the law was a little messed up in the first place. Why not just make it illegal to donate to any candidate who does not represent you in your state of residence? Thus you can only donate to your House Representative, your two Senators and the President/Vice President.

    April 2, 2014 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  6. Ray 303

    The last nail in the coffin of American democracy. When is the internment?

    April 2, 2014 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  7. KeninTexas

    As much as I appreciate less government intrusion into what I do or say, removing all limits to political donations is going to led to government going to the highest bidder. More than it already is!
    This is not good for the average citizen.

    April 2, 2014 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  8. Hugh

    Wow... Is this the first nail in the coffin of democracy? Or the last? I'm willing to bet that they ensured that there will NOT be any transparency while they were at it.

    April 2, 2014 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  9. Dan

    This is the pinnacle achievement of a Supreme Court that has outright destroyed over 100 years of election law and turned our elections process into a mockery, a lie, a sham. Fully representative government is dead in the USA.

    April 2, 2014 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  10. Craig in Pa.

    Krushev was right ...we are destroying ourselves from within...and we the people let it happen...

    April 2, 2014 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  11. Buggs

    So basically we now have what Tom Perkins was criticized for a few months back. Tom Perkins: People With More Money Should Get More Votes. We have always been a "Representative Democracy" but now we are a "Representing the Rich Democracy!"

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

    Can we impeach members of the Supreme Court? Certain members of that body have shown themselves to be the true enemies of Democracy. Welcome to the era of corporate governance. The more time that passes from 1984 the closer we get to it.

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  13. Dadster

    The Plutocrats have won!

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  14. S.B. Stein

    There was no need for this. More money into the political system just means more corruption. If someone has that money enough to donate to a candidate, then he or she should run for office. The average person who would do the job honestly and represent the district or state well has no chance of getting elected to office. This just move this country closer to one run by the wealthy and does less for the poor.

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

    Now those with lots of money but differ from George Soros and his political manipulations can now make contributions.

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  16. Whats in your pocket

    people want to know ...whats in your pocket Justice Roberts?!

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  17. marineway

    Did anyone READ the article? I know CNN's headlines are designed to make you think you know something, but you really have to read before you truly know anything.

    The limits on how much an individual can contribute to a single candidate are STILL IN PLACE. You can't give any more money to the candidate of your choice today, than you could give him or her yesterday. Please read.

    Why should the government limit how many candidates an individual can contribute to? That's what they had done and that's what was struck down. Viva la Constitution!

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  18. brad

    If money is speech, and speech is free, I'll take my free money now please.

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

    Constitutional amendment to mandate near 100% public financing of campaigns is needed. Except for say, the money required to register and get the necessary signatures to qualify to even run, campaigns should be 100% public funding. No money interests controlling our politics.

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  20. jboh

    230 years after George Washington, and his troops won, the Supreme Court just surrendered to the Tory forces of rule by a privelidged, elitist class above all laws. The Roberts(yes chief, you will be remembered for this)Court just put government on the auction block.

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  21. John

    Ridiculous, this country belongs to the rich. Political contributions should no be allowed at all

    PS. It worries me CNN is not covering Flight 370

    April 2, 2014 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  22. bee13zzz

    THIS ISN'T ABOUT POLITICAL PARTIES! This is about universal corruption that is eating away the very foundation of this country. It is about self-serving wickedness on a grand scale that is on a path to consume us all.

    IT'S NOT ABOUT THE PARTIES! It's about corruption at all levels of government, corporations, & banking.

    April 2, 2014 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  23. Charles

    Allowing the wealthy to donate unlimited amounts of money to campaigns does not ensure their freedom of speech, it ensures their freedom to bully.

    April 2, 2014 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  24. Jeff

    We have practiced fascist style government for many cycles ..it is time for the militia, those troops who protect within our borders to take out these goons before they kill us all, perhaps it's too late.

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

    I am not happy with this decision at all. Now money can make/break a election. It is like thirdworld country.

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