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. Bruce Jenkins

    It's time to investigate the neo-conservatives on the Supreme Court who have regulated the Americam Citizen to a position of no impact in elections and have violated our rights as comsumers and as voters. They and many Republicans are focused on rewarding the rich and big business (no, businesses are not people) to the detriment of every Amercian. The Republicans don't even realize how this will negatively impact them as citizens in the long run. It's time to impeach John roberts and his cohorts!.

    April 2, 2014 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  2. Kevin

    We're going in the wrong direction folks. The Supreme Court is in effect codifying the ability of the wealthy to "buy" elections. Roberts opinion talks about "the most fundamental First Amendment activities". I don't recall the First Amendment stating that the volume of your voice should be controlled by the contents of your wallet. In my opinion, the individual campaign contribution limit should equal 40 times the current minimum hourly wage. This would democratize campaign financing. It would also very likely have the ancillary benefit of immediately calling for an increase in the minimum wage from the right and the left. So, a win-win!

    April 2, 2014 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  3. Jayakumar

    Essentially it means that people with more money have more rights. So I dont see how that is not against first amendment right.

    April 2, 2014 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  4. dlh

    The problem is not individuals supporting their candidate by making huge contributions. That is a freedom of speech/expression issue. The problem is that the candidates know who gave them millions and millions of dollars and are, by human nature, bound to lend them an ear (and a few votes on bills) after the election. Candidates should be isolated from knowing who gave what to avoid the conflict of interest.

    April 2, 2014 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  5. Lynda/Minnesota

    Bob C.

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

    I'm on record here on the ticker ... Bob C. ... for being against candidates on either side of the aisle being bribed for policy making re: our United States government.

    Go find someone else to play your childish games with.

    April 2, 2014 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  6. richard

    Mark the date: the official end of democracy in the United States (it's been coming a long time).

    April 2, 2014 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  7. Rob

    If you're all up in arms and thinking this is a Republican thing, you're wrong. There are just as many egrigious examples of throwing money at candidates on the Dem side as the Repub side. And if yo'ure really concerned about the downfall of democracy, look no further than an administration that is arguably one of the most opaque in history as well as the most abusive of power. If campaign reform is your biggest concern right now, I'd suggest you take another look at what's happened to the Separation of Powers under this President. THAT ought to concern you quite a bit more.

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  8. Leonore H. Dvorkin

    Ads have no effect on me and on any other intelligent people who can think for themselves. I simply vote straight Democratic and ignore ads. So their spending is wasted on me and on the vast majority of my many friends and family members. I love seeing them waste their wealth.

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  9. Todd

    Welll... There goes democracy, 238 years was a good run.
    Here hoping the rich knows what is best for us.

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  10. Oscar

    America to the highest bidder.

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  11. Bill Sheehan

    If you want this to stop people, join "Move To Amend" and get the money out of politics through a Constitutional Amendment. Otherwise, we will continue to have the best government money can buy.

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  12. yeahright

    George Dixon

    215 Days to a GOP Senate

    Koch donations = $9,831,715 in total, can be compared in the same time frame as the following contributions, of evil green money, made to Democrats:


    In the 2012 elections alone the Koch Brothers, through Americans for Prosperity spent over $36 million. Crossroads GPS, Karl Roves superpac spent $176 million (they were number 1) Sheldon Adelson spent $93 million.

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  13. Chuck

    Where's the coverage of the Benghazi Trials? got something you don't want us to hear about?

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  14. Portlandtony

    In most elections The uber rich and powerful have always decided who the common man is allowed to vote for anyway. Why does this.decision surprise anyone? In this country's past, only landowners were allowed to vote. Democracy....Plutocracy.....What's the difference?

    April 2, 2014 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  15. herchato

    The supreme court just opened up the biding for congresspersons, you can start trying to purchase one today! All you young people out their, if you want to get rich forget about wall street and get into politics! Forget about of the people for the people and by the people that was just storybook stuff. The wealthy are going to make sure we the people have just what we need.

    April 2, 2014 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  16. frankenfurter

    Oh Jesus Christ! Its clear that 5 of the 9 justices don't live in the real world. It's time for a Constitutional Amendment.

    April 2, 2014 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  17. Billy

    Doesn't matter which of the only two parties benefits most. What matters is no one from either party will ever be elected without being held accountable by their biggest donors. In other words... the fix is in for the guys at the top, the rest of us might as well stop kidding ourselves about being in a Republic.

    April 2, 2014 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  18. Hah

    So this is what it takes to get CNN talking about something other than that plane?

    April 2, 2014 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  19. 1alien1

    stop complaining about the decision. don't you know we have the best justice money can buy? i beleive our government and supreme court has done more damage to our country than any terrorist organization has.

    April 2, 2014 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  20. nonono

    marineway, because even if the individual limit is in place, what keeps you from donating the maximum to EVERY candidate you choose?

    April 2, 2014 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  21. ronmexico99

    Government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation . . . .

    April 2, 2014 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  22. cmcle

    John Boehner celebrating the victory: "What this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld. 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."

    I want to give $1,000,000 to my favorite candidates and causes in the midterm election. I have the freedom to, but I can't. Fortunately we have people like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers to do it for us. They, and others like them, are the true winners with this ruling.

    April 2, 2014 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  23. Wake Up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    We'll be electing Kings and Queens before long.....

    America the land of opportunity if you are very wealthy. If you're poor, get out. The best government money can buy.

    April 2, 2014 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  24. Larry38363

    It is so sad to see our country and ethics being destroyed continually by the Republican Party. Their sole goal is the end of a democratic Republic and re-instatement of a monarchy with the 1% ruling the Country and the rest of us as serfs. The Republicans keep saying how they like Putin. Next you know both Russia and the US of A will return to Tsarist rule. I'm to old to participate but, can't wait for the revolution to start and the end of the pseudo-Christian right wing anarchists!

    April 2, 2014 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  25. Dave

    just proves that the politicians aren't the only ones that are in Corporate pockets....sad........

    April 2, 2014 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
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