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. Libdumb

    Now the rich liberals can give it all to their entitled candidates.

    April 2, 2014 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  2. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    When did money replace speech ?
    When you become a 1%er you'll let your wallet do your talking for you.
    White western countries, 1st world living with 3rd world corruption values.
    Quite so.
    But don't give up hope, if the Rethugs have their way they'll repeal Obamacare, keep us at a stagnant and untenable minimum wage, no food stamps for the poor, amongst other concessions to the uber-rich.
    Then it will be Third World living with Third World corruption for sure

    April 2, 2014 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  3. doh

    As usual, the Supreme court sided with the 1%. Lets petition to remove the tax deduction for campaign contributions. That may help to even the score.

    April 2, 2014 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  4. Simon Cohen

    The message is clear: the richer you are the more "free speech" you can afford. I am affraid, since "corporations are people", we can expect allowing them to vote in elections using number of votes proportionate to corporation wealth.

    April 2, 2014 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  5. cmcle

    Individuals are corporations too, my friend.

    April 2, 2014 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  6. frank Rizzo

    How about a law that prohibits campaign funds for personal and family use. I mean come on this is ridiculous.

    April 2, 2014 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  7. Jonathan

    The courts just validated bribery because it violated the first amendment.... some people are educated beyond their intelligence

    April 2, 2014 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  8. Juan

    The US is looking more and more like my Mexico every passing day.

    April 2, 2014 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  9. What a load of Divas

    Might as well replace the US Stars and Stripes with dollar signs and be done with it!,......................"The home of the rich and the Land of the bribe.,"

    April 2, 2014 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  10. bnakka

    Weird thing is didn't Obama get more contributions than Mitt Romney? Or was that not true..... Why is this law only helping the Republicans. Aren't there democrats who donate big to that party as well.

    All in all people can't be more stupid to think that somehow one party is more corrupt than the other.

    April 2, 2014 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  11. JASC92

    *Borat voice*


    April 2, 2014 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  12. whiterabbit3

    It's unclear to me how this is not considered a revival of the poll tax. Recall that poll taxes basically said if you did not have a certain amount of money (enough to pay the tax), you were not allowed to vote (your vote, and thus your position as a citizen, didn't matter). This was of course a means of keeping poor southern blacks from voting, and we decided long ago that this was wrong (e.g. 24th amendment; Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections). This latest SCOTUS decision takes us back to those days. If you are worth $75 billion and can now contribute as much as you want, and I'm worth a couple thousand (and can contribute as much as I "want", of course), who can contribute more? And, which contribution (yours of $1 million or mine of $10) is going to get more attention from a given politician? I might get a nice boilerplate thank you email for my contribution, but you'll get a day long audience and the ability to craft tailored legislation through the access you've bought. Thus, you've effectively nullified my vote, just the same as a poll tax would have. I guess I assumed the R's on SCOTUS knew something about legal precedent, but perhaps they just don't care..

    April 2, 2014 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  13. 1sad1

    "...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the corporation, by the corporatoin, for the profit of the corporation, shall not perish from the earth."
    Corporations are people my friend. Can hardly wait until Congress passes the statute on Facecrime.

    April 2, 2014 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  14. Coffee Party

    Funny thing is I actually don't mind the lack of campaign donation limits.


    The one thing that annoys me to no end is how the donors can hide behind 3rd party action groups.

    Force these donors to reveal who they are.

    April 2, 2014 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  15. Timothy Markham

    I guess bribes are now Constitutionally-protected free speech when they are camouflaged as campaign donations. I can't wait to see the impact of this "Constitutional interpretation" on elections of sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges. What a disaster!!

    April 2, 2014 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  16. Olympic Eagle

    This is good. After all rich people must be smarter than the rest of us or else they would not be rich. Moreover they have more to loose if the wrong people govern. So it only make sense that they should be able to buy the government that is best for them. That is what the free market is all about. Right?

    April 2, 2014 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  17. Lack Jackson

    At this point they're just pumping bullets into America's dead corpse out of sheer cruelty.

    April 2, 2014 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  18. Sheldon Adelson

    What??? This is no good I say! Now the price will surely go up whereas I was told 1/2 billion could buy US president. Oy vey, the puppet placement here in the US is getting too expensive. What happened to good old days of Lobby bribes and foreign installments...

    April 2, 2014 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  19. richie

    So Alito's dream of the 1% that control 35% of the wealth in this country (more than the lower 90%), will be able to continue to outspend the lower 99% in campaign financing. Why not carry this to the next logical step and only allow those that are millionaires to vote at all?

    April 2, 2014 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  20. JLXvsElvis

    We've gone back to the days of the coal and railroad barons. Full circle.

    April 2, 2014 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  21. osuflan

    The 1% now can buy the elections, great way to eliminate the rest of the country from being involved.

    April 2, 2014 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  22. Lack Jackson

    It's over. Bow to your corporate masters.

    April 2, 2014 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  23. John

    outrageous! Washington DC simply does NOT represent the citizens anymore.

    April 2, 2014 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  24. Allaneddie

    More money always has bought more speech. Do you think CNN, the New York times, the Wall Street Journal don't have money to spread their speech? They do and they have opinions. What surprises me is that an American citizen can't spend as much as he or she wants on a given political candidate. Liberty is being trampled by that aspect of the law.

    April 2, 2014 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  25. tyrone johnson

    This is absolutely mind blowing. I can not believe CNN finally took that story about the missing plane off it's headline.

    April 2, 2014 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
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