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. Mark Jecusco

    Funny People are blaming GOP. Most of the people on the Court are either Dems , or seated by them. Its a election year for the Dems to remain in the top seat and hoping to take over control of Congress.

    This is all Dem.

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

    It appears that our Supreme Court, working closely with our Congress, are determined to wipe out representative democracy in America. In its place they are creating the Fascist States of America, wherein every corporate entity will be represented, and the people enslaved.
    I'm curious how long the American people will allow their liberty and government to be hijacked by neo-fascists.

    April 2, 2014 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  3. sickofyou

    When in violation of our Laws.,,they just change them to fit their purpose.

    April 2, 2014 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  4. gregg

    So effectively they just made it legal to buy and election..... nice move... and as others have said, relegated the common man to meaningless in the election cycle...

    April 2, 2014 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  5. djjimi

    Stop. Paying. Taxes. We are no longer a government of representatives for the people, but for the corporate fascists.

    April 2, 2014 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  6. Me


    @ Dean:

    "Nobody happier than George Soros."

    This IS a both sides do it issue that ALL Americans (especially we the little people) should NOT be celebrating.
    I completely agree Lynda but why didn't you post this to Silence or Dallas who blame the "right wing" blah blah. This issue happens pretty much the same on BOTH sides. I guess the only arguement for this ruling is that at least it is fair for both sides, they both can and do do it. (hehe I said dodo) I don't see that changing anytime soon now.....

    April 2, 2014 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  7. bombastus

    The Koch brothers, GOP, NRA and Fox champagne cork bottles are popping. More money, more paid for politicians, more corruption, more breaks for the super rich, more money down the campaign rat hole. Thanks, Supreme Court. It's more important now than ever to get a democrat elected president. This way it might be possible to replace both Ginsburg and Scalia (hopefully he'll want to retire before he's 90) with two people that won't routinely lie down for the rich and powerful.

    April 2, 2014 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  8. David Jensen

    Good bye midlle class, welcome to Corporate Paradise, my vote is now up for sale please send cash only.

    April 2, 2014 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    HERE COMES – the flowering of the KOCH-stra Nostra. Political Corruption just got a greenback light to go ahead undaunted with their plans to dismantle America.

    April 2, 2014 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  10. WelschRabbit

    One more nail in the coffin of democracy. May the richest man win.

    April 2, 2014 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  11. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    The REAL Truth...
    The Grand Oligarchy Party is corrupting our government at all levels
    Yes but in all fairness Truth the Democrats (whether in equal numbers or not remains to be seen) will avail themselves of this new "game change", as some of them have of Citizens United.
    Those that turn down this new found "opportunity" as gifted to them by the ever "judicious" (sarcasm) Supreme Court, those are the politicians that you may still want to listen to what they have to say.
    All the other ones have a huge "For Sale" sign in front of their name.

    April 2, 2014 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  12. Ronnie McDougal

    Why is this shocking to people? Rich people finally said "Hey we're paying off people, why hide it?" Good for them. I'm rich and I support Hillary \ Monica Lewinsky 2016 ticket!!! Yeah rich people!!!!

    April 2, 2014 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  13. yeahright


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


    Yeah, that's s why they are all in LasVegas groveling at Sheldon Adelson's feet.
    Oh, wait...

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  14. Lamar S.

    No wonder so many Americans don;t bother to vote anymore. It basically means nothing.

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  15. Looknclick

    Some country (USA) that we used to know

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  16. michele

    Why is giving money protected? Let them spend money on expression– speaking, writing books, making videos to publicize their ideas without limit. But let's limit giving money.

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  17. virgo

    lobby or legal bribe you decide.

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  18. commoncents

    giving political donations is definitely freedom of speech, exact unlike traditional freedom of speech, donations allow the rich to buy and own elected officials

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  19. 2L

    Despite all this talk about the court saying corporations are people, that was not what the court said. The court said core political speech cannot be restricted based on the donor's identity. I got this from my constitutional law professor, who sat in on the arguments.

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  20. 1984

    this is why people need to pay attention to Supreme Court Nominees.
    Now the only way to change it is to get the law changed. We need to step up and take the big money out of politics, otherwise the gap between the have nots and the haves is going to get alot bigger. .

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  21. Know Your Subject

    Haha – Justice Kennedy is called a conservative when liberals don't like his positions and he is called a liberal when conservatives don't like his positions.

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  22. DJ

    Obama brought in almost a BILLION dollars, do you really think this will affect anything? If someone wants to give away their money, then let them! Freedom people!! Also let's not forget all the Democrat billionaires. Just like when the PACs were so horrible, then every democrat had one!!

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  23. Kevin

    At what point do we start holding Justices accountable for their actions? We're supposed to have checks and balances, remember?

    April 2, 2014 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  24. Matt

    Democracy for the people by the people is officially dead. The rich can now buy who ever, where ever they want.

    April 2, 2014 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  25. Gretchen

    Can the Supreme Court be over-ruled??? What I want to know is who's paying them off? This is the END of democracy what this country was based on. What a horrible decision.

    April 2, 2014 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
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