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. Baa

    So if Party A is running a candidate A against Party B's candidate B. There is nothing to stop Party B from having Candidate C, D, E F all run. Now I can give 5200 to each and have them all run negative campaigns against A.

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

    The problem is not the amount of money anyone can spend...although on the surface it appears the wealthy can 'buy' our government. The problem is the politicians they support get elected and then try to stop any opposing group from voting..to ensure the wealthy Fat Cat can continue to have their interests made into law no matter how many citizens disagree! IF, however, the populace were encouraged to vote from all aspects of society then no matter how much they spend – these men's money would have less (or no) effect if they have no 'message' or 'ideas'! I believe Romney found that out the last election cycle!

    April 2, 2014 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  3. richard in texas

    So much for balance of power in American government.

    April 2, 2014 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  4. Silas

    Yeah, let's just make it easier to buy an election.

    April 2, 2014 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  5. Ben Nines

    How long until people start "running" for office simple to benefit another candidate or worse, start 'running' an election cycle or two ahead of when they really want to so they can gather $5,200 from each wealthy person and stock pile the funds for when really run.

    April 2, 2014 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  6. frank the fork

    Its legal to buy and bribe US politicians....ah aint capitalism just grand. Corps rule US.
    Again...no one in DC or affiliated will try to make changes for the better of all!

    April 2, 2014 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  7. greengestalt

    Finally a story that affects Americans, not just "Le Plane! Le Plane!"...

    Another thing, google "DuPont Affluenza"... That should be headlines here, going viral around the net.

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  8. Bob Scott

    Finally, I can buy my own congressman and he will be mine and mine alone.

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  9. Tony

    This should work well for democrat candidates, as they can now milk more from Hollywood liberals...

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  10. Richard

    I just thought why don't all democrats boycott the next election. The rethuglicans will vote all their people in and the country for two years will go further in the toilet. Then the vast majority of Independents will be so screwed by their legislation, that from that point forward it will be extremely hard for rethuglicans to get elected. Those independents will learn a lesson that the Democrats already know, they are only for the rich. They tout tax breaks for the middle class only because they cannot just give tax breaks to the rich. If they could screw their rethuglican middle class they would, oh wait, they are already doing it and their constituents are ready to bend over and grab their ankles for the rich. It's great to have that kind of patriotism for people who would screw you over in a heart beat. We see how the rethuglicans disparage their own people if they don't agree with them.

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  11. hee hee

    Wow. Now there won't even be a choice between right-wing fascists and the republicans.

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  12. WelschRabbit

    If you judge this decision by what the parties stand for; Republicans protecting the rich and Democrats protecting the poor. Who do you think will win the elections?

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  13. Mark

    This is outrageous! Now that Mr. Obama has been re-elected, we should restrict all political donations since he won't need the money for any more elections.

    April 2, 2014 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  14. Jason

    If this is not high Treason by the GOP SCOTUS. I don't know what is

    April 2, 2014 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  15. Zeev

    Great! So, up until now they could be influenced, and now they can be outright bought. Fantastic.

    April 2, 2014 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  16. Wade

    Why did CNN place this story on POLITICAL TICKER? Are they trying to hide it so fewer people will actually comment on it?

    April 2, 2014 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  17. yeahright

    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.


    Try informing yourself:

    Antonin Scalia – Reagan

    Anthony Kennedy – Reagan

    Clarence Thomas – Bush, G. H. W.

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Clinton

    Stephen Breyer – Clinton

    John G. Roberts (Chief Justice) – Bush, G. W.

    Samuel Alito – Bush, G. W.

    It's 5 to 4 favoring the conserviatives.

    Sonia Sotomayor – Obama

    Kagan, Elena – Obama

    April 2, 2014 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  18. Izzy A Scheisskopf

    George Soros gone wild! The Hollywood Left on a shopping spree. Buying the government. These people will orchestrate a Democrat victory in 2014. The Koch Brothers are minor league by comparisons to the George Soros money bags crowd.

    April 2, 2014 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  19. jarred1977

    Massive differences in who has how influential backers, and the backers with enough clout and capitol to sway/buy an election. Sadly, this is a by-product of a capitalist system. It has its flaws, but we're stuck with it.

    April 2, 2014 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  20. Achmed

    This is just getting us back to the basic beliefs of our nation's founders, $1 = 1 vote. The Supreme Court wanted to truly get back to the original ideals and state that $1 from a black person would be worth 3/5 of a vote but that will have to wait until next year.

    April 2, 2014 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  21. Henry

    New rule: if the politician has an ad on tv, he or she is bought. Find someone else to vote for.

    April 2, 2014 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  22. oldblindjohn

    The Bilderberg Group meets over the week end and three days later this ruling is handed down.
    There is no such thing as coincidence, only an imperfect understanding of cause and effect.

    April 2, 2014 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  23. Me

    sonny chapman

    Corporations are NOT People. They don't go to war& have their legs blown off. They don't get sick because they lack Health Insurance. They don't have their kids killed by Assault Rifles. They don't get laid off by downsizing. They don't see their kids strapped w/huge Student Loans. Corporations are a Legal FICTION. They do NOT have the same 1st Amendment Free Speech Rights as flesh & blood HUMANS. Corporations are created by HUMANS. Human Beings are Created by God, Allah, Yahweh.
    I am not sure why you posted this but, corporations are not people BUT they ARE made up of people. You do realize that so called "evil" corporations employ millions and millions of people in this country and without them the job market would be a nighmare and almost nonexistent, small businesses can only do so much and only hire so many people! I work for one and I have had co-workers that were sent off to wars and some did come back with wounds (both physical and mental). But again I don't know why you posted this, corporations are STILL NOT allowed to directly contribute to ANY candidate or political cause as far as I know!!! They can create PACs which is solely funded by the PEOPLE of the company and completely voluntary and as far as I know this has not changed so what does your rant have to do with this story?!

    April 2, 2014 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  24. GOP Sucks

    The Supreme Court could mess-up a one car funeral...sad, sad, sad.

    April 2, 2014 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  25. reasonablebe

    so now the koch bros and mitt romney can just buy any election, any at all....including those in areas they have no ties to... totally disgusitng. time to put forth another constitutional amendment, and get out the vote with everyday people, rather than the entrenched.

    April 2, 2014 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
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