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. jack

    Your elections will not matter by your vote anymore, it will matter who gets the most money. Your elections are now corrupted by being paid off, it's called bribery. Only the rich will have a say in the elections, while the poor and middle class will not have a voice anymore........

    April 2, 2014 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  2. drkent3

    OK – so money is speech, and it is Unconstitutional to limit speech. Therefore an unlimited amount of money can be given as a form of speech. More money = more power. So, if I want a particular candidate to win and I have a louder voice than anyone else, or have the power to dominate the podium, I can just overpower everyone else with my 'freedom of speech'.

    In other words, free speech is not simply the ability to express an opinion or idea – it now includes the ability to drown out other voices if you are powerful enough to do so.

    April 2, 2014 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  3. David Witcraft

    So, you're free to spend $100M in an election cycle (Sheldon Adelson already did), but they're chipping away at the fifth amendment. I don't really follow what this court is doing.

    April 2, 2014 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  4. Jeff Bockert

    With the top 1% in possession of over half the world's wealth it is difficult to see how allowing unlimited campaign contributions is somehow connected to freedom of speech. I would think, if we look at relative wealth and relative taxation, the working and middle class are now basically subject to taxation without representation, at least not equal representation.

    April 2, 2014 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  5. Pogojo

    Activist judges, just like the gay marriage issue, special interests will always win.

    April 2, 2014 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  6. underwaterops

    Money rules. More and more.
    Our democratic republic is quickly becoming a moneyarchy. Thanks to a Supreme Court that has decided that theology trumps reality.

    April 2, 2014 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  7. Gary Sutphin

    The good news is...something FINALLY came along to grab a CNN headline from the plane crash story.

    The bad news is...it took something like the further breakdown of american democracy to do it.

    We're SUCH a bunch of idiots!

    April 2, 2014 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  8. GregK

    Chief Justice Roberts has done exactly what the rich and powerful wanted him to do when he was nominated for the bench. He has handed the country to them. In the modern age where the amount you spend on your advertising pretty much dictates your results in the election, the court has basically stifled the voice of the poor and middle class. The lesser known candidates no longer stand much of a chance and they will always be the overwhelming underdog. This is a very dark day in America for the common person. This isn't a democrat vs republican issue. This is a wealthy vs poor or middle class issue. It is all about the dollars and who controls them. If some candidate is given millions of dollars that helps them win the election, it is only logical to assume that the giver of the millions will expect a return on their investment. They can and will expect political favors to come their way. No one is going to hand over that much money without expecting something in return. It has absolutely nothing to do with Free Speech. There should be no correlation to exercising your rights with the size of your wallet. To make that connection pretty much makes my voice as small as the size of my hard working middle class wallet.

    April 2, 2014 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  9. Pander Bear

    Best government money can buy!!!

    April 2, 2014 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  10. Bert

    Government for the corporations by the corporations

    April 2, 2014 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  11. Elliot Nicholas Donovan

    This county is toast.

    Thanks, Supreme Court, history will not be kind.

    April 2, 2014 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  12. Ken

    Dominican Mama for Obama – Really? Obama isn't cashing in? I guess every joe blow in the world is afforded the opportunity to fly down on the countries dime and play rounds of golf with Tiger Woods. I guess everyone is also afforded the opportunity to fly Jay-z and Beyonce down to their house to hang out. You probably believe that Michelle has paid out of her own personal funds for hundreds of $10,000+ dresses. Those are just a few of the things that don't pass the stink-0-meter that are in the publics face. I'm sure the POTUS is also getting his pockets lined just like every other politician out there. He's no different than any other politician.

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  13. Namebadtobone

    nothing changed its still the same old.
    one cry because they think the other side may get a penny more than they did.
    it's the same how much money can you raise.
    why else would obama be flying around campaign.

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  14. Tyler

    How many times does this lady need to blink her eyes in one segment...?

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  15. joe

    By using free speech to justify unlimited donations, We have decided that money officially equals voice.

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  16. z8k8

    Vote the people with most donations out!
    There is a direct correctional between money and corruption in politics.

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  17. bryan

    I say....anyone can give anything to anyone BUT there needs to be FULL discosure

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  18. GOP Sucks

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

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  19. keith

    Am I in the right place ? The breaking news wasn't about the missing plane....

    April 2, 2014 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  20. John

    And this vote was bought and brought to you by the NRA and Oil lobbies

    April 2, 2014 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  21. Government Waste Rules

    Great news for the Democrats who have been adamantly against campaign contribution reform for years!

    April 2, 2014 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  22. just bob

    In the end, we won't get the government we deserve or need... we'll get the one that the 1% buy for the rest of us.

    April 2, 2014 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  23. Jeff Bockert

    I guess free speech isn't really free after all – it can be purchased. The more money you have, the more you can buy. The more you buy, the more likely you can ensure that the legal system creates and sustains laws that allows you to continue to make more. The Pope was right, capitalism is failing the majority of people in the world.

    April 2, 2014 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  24. aniket

    Yay! We are better than the 3rd world countries, because we have zero corruption! Thanks to the SC, it's all legal.

    April 2, 2014 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  25. Richard Miller

    The 99% just lost. Now, the 1% had free reign over all lives in this country. Democracy just croaked.

    April 2, 2014 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
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