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. Old_Hippie

    I just heard the sucking sound of the last breath being pulled from the lungs of those who celibrated freedom and justice for all. SCOTUS just sold us all down the oligarchy river. Bow down america to your monied masters. I hope I am still alive to see the beginnings of a new revolution.

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

    What should be at issue is whether removing those regulations in the Federal Election Campaign Act violate the First Amendment rights of everyone else not rich enough to donate large sums of money to political campaigns. We all know that in politics "money talks", so the vast majority of Americans without the means to pay off, I mean contribute to the campaigns of, politicians will have no say at all when they make decisions that affect our lives.

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  3. JusSayin

    It seems somehow fitting, the picture of the Supreme Court Building and the Flag before it did not load properly. The Supreme Courts looks like it is in shambles, and the USA Flag looks like it is in tatters, with the stars replaced with symbols, including the ones for the Euro, and Yen and the Yuan. I didn't see a $ dollar sign or a £ pound note, but there were other symbols, unrecognizable to me.

    WE NOW OFFICIALLY HAVE THE BEST GOVERNMENT MONEY CAN BUY, as if Citizens United wasn't bad enough.


    Thank you for your consideration,


    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  4. steven

    I think that there is a difference between Obama care and this ruling....aca benefits the majority of americans...todays ruling destroys America and put it up for sale.....

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  5. endgame

    Now we have it black on white, the US Government is driven entirely by money. Strike out in God we trust because it is blatant lie and should;d be changed to "We worship money". This county is doomed!

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  6. louie

    Ruling is a non-event. Donors had figured out ways around existing laws long ago.

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  7. aaronkalb

    This has nothing to do with Dems/Reps and everything to do with a broken democracy. Our politicians should represent the people, not the largest and wealthiest companies! Do yourself a favor and do a search for "represent us". Even just spreading the word can help.

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  8. Badly-Bent

    It's good to be da 1%

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  9. Joe Ma

    For Sale: Integrity of the United States of America

    I'm thinking we should make Perkins' cries of a witch-hunt on the rich a reality.

    April 2, 2014 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    I dont have much money so I dont have much free speech. I guess thats the way things work

    April 2, 2014 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  11. Jack33

    This is what happens when you vote for republicans – they appoint far-right conservative judges that make rulings like this (note the 5-4 ruling, right along political lines).

    In all likelihood, this will be the end of USA as it was intended by the founding fathers, and is an admission that we are now, for all purposes, a Plutocracy. Don't fool yourself: money wins elections almost every time, especially when it vastly outspends the competition...it's why third Parties pretty much never win, and it's why we are now likely to have only one Party – the republicans – ruling this nation. Sadly, huge numbers of Americans are not smart enough to see through what will now be endless pro-republican propaganda funded by a near-unlimited supply of money. If they succeed – which it's looking like nothing can stop them now – You can kiss all of your livelihood & rights goodbye, as well as your social security, medicare, workplace rights, pollution laws, college loans, and even minimum wage. After that, middle-class jobs will be brought down as well to poverty wages, with no benefits.

    April 2, 2014 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  12. iReason

    The Supremes do it again – a little more of our ability to actually have a say in the way our country is run is further diminished. The LOOPHOLES of their decision are as big of the egos of these overblown lawyers

    Each decision drives another nail into the coffin of the "american dream."

    I have never been so sad for my children and my fellow citizens.

    The forefathers saw this possibility and made statement on what should happen and what we citizens are entitled to do and must do.

    The time for SERIOUS CHANGE has come.

    April 2, 2014 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  13. Josh

    I wonder what part this plays in the search for flight 370...

    April 2, 2014 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  14. X

    Good buy, democracy,
    I guess Koch's money can buy anyone, anything they want.
    Oh and btw, thanks also to the uneducated masses that ever thought the tea party was on their side.

    April 2, 2014 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  15. Richard

    Three cheers for the rethuglican justices! They have done the rich a good service and they will go down in history as having destroyed the middle class. We need to put term limits on these creeps. It would be a different story if they cared about the United States.

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  16. Lenny Pincus

    Finally, the original intent bugnoses get it right. Our Founding Fathers were very clear: only wealthy landowners were supposed to be able to vote–and NO women. That goodness there are five judges willing to go to bat for the mindset of 1784. Let's not forget slavery is a Biblical concept. I can see SCOTUS's next step.

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  17. Capn. Obvious

    The FIRST Amendment gives me the right to express myself freely. That guaratees that I should be free and able to support any and all political candidates that I feel represent me and my interests the best. I should not be limited in my support...whether physically (working for a campaign) emotionally/intelligently (my vote) or monetarily. It also gives YOU the free speech right to go out and support – with no limits – a contrasting politician with differing views than mine.
    Anyone with a problem with a ruling that upholds the First Amendment, does not agree with the right of FREE SPEECH.

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  18. Matt

    Go look at the top donors in this country. You'll see it's both Republicans and Democrats benefiting from this. Democrats are big business too.

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  19. adrifter

    I guess the logical next step would be for each voter to set the price of his or her vote. Of course, that would be vote-buying and (I'm assuming) illegal in the United States. But is there really any difference with what's happening now? Money rules, not the people.

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  20. TheThinker1958

    if being able to give any amount of money is so obvious how come the vote is 5-4? why isn't it 7-2 or 8-1? aren't the laws suppose to be obvious in certain way?

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  21. Allan

    Now some people have more influence then others, what happened to a level playing field!

    April 2, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  22. Michael

    Another insane ruling by this Court. It's as if the Supreme Court is systematically dismantling our democracy and handing it over to the rich elites. In the future, they will not look good in the history books...that is if there is any US left to write history books.

    April 2, 2014 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  23. tonymanx

    Terrible, terrible, terrible. I have now lost what little remaining faith I had in this system. It is always the money.

    April 2, 2014 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  24. ditdahdit

    Who would want to be limited to a paltry $123,000 of influence? These Teapublican justices are corrupt or insane, and you can't buy insanity.

    April 2, 2014 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  25. danomite

    Re: 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.

    What an excellent idea, but of course those who contribute large amounts to political campaigns will never allow their congressmen to get rid of that little perk for them.

    April 2, 2014 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
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