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. Me

    Eddie B

    we are now officially own by major corporations, America for the corporations by the corporations. Very sad.
    AGAIN, how so, corporations are NOT allowed to contribute to ANY candidate or political group so how does this ruling change that (unless I missed that part)??

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

    Pretty sure Republicans around the country are doing the happy dance...now they have a fighting chance to buy an election!

    April 2, 2014 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  3. richard in texas

    ....and we should care about Russia invading Ukraine? Our most violent aggression towards our democracy just came out of Washington D.C. today, forget about events 2500 miles away, our concern is within our borders. We are the enemy unto ourselves. VOTE smart people. Protests are coming.

    April 2, 2014 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  4. TIZI

    Democracy is dead. Time for an armed revolution.

    April 2, 2014 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  5. Yermom

    Great. Our leadership is chosen by who best weathers the attack ads. Our national security is now in jeopardy to foreign influence.

    April 2, 2014 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  6. dkhhuey

    The last remnants of a democracy, which were thin to begin with, are officially gone in the US. Every single day I am elated that we moved to Canada!

    April 2, 2014 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  7. Jack

    It used to be that only landowners could vote or those who could afford to pay the poll tax. I guess we're heading back in that direction. Many people feel that their participation doesn't matter. Well, they may be right. The only people who matter are the ones with the most money to contribute to the process. Sad state for America.

    April 2, 2014 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  8. Steve

    Freedom of speech means speech, not money. It's money that's destroying our democracy, not speech.

    April 2, 2014 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  9. Subnx

    The democrats want to limit how I can support candidates so only Oprah and other celebrities can be heard.

    April 2, 2014 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  10. AqW

    I know for sure that many of the conservative judges actually don't believe in "let the majority of the voices be heard in any election". Conservative republicans and even these judges have a philosophy.....that has consistently been "We know better than the general public whats needed and let the few powerful and knowledgeable control everything and anything".

    April 2, 2014 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  11. GreyMan

    The GOP is going to find a way to buy back the majority.

    April 2, 2014 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  12. Gregg

    Dear Danomite: Political donations are already NOT tax deductible.

    April 2, 2014 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  13. The Supreme Cousrt is worse than Congress

    Just when I thought the SCOTUS couldn't make any worse decisions than Citizens United, they fooled me! No wonder 3000 people have given up their citizenship in the last few years. The USA has become more corrupt than most banana republics. We just have more McDonalds on each corner.

    April 2, 2014 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  14. bspurloc

    money is not speech its corruption. disgusting.

    April 2, 2014 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  15. Chris Mann

    or...we the people could just stop voting for these career politicians on both sides who line their campaign coffers with money that could be better spent elsewhere. Better yet, let them spend their millions of dollars to help the economy then let them sit back while we vote for a third party candidate who spends no money. We get the best of both worlds. The benefit of their money stimulating the economy AND the benefit of seeing new ideas in congress.

    April 2, 2014 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  16. Daniel P. Hanover

    Any person, and any group of people, and any domestic organization, should be able to spend as much money they want on anything, including political contributions, at any time, anywhere, for any reason. That is the essence of the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech. If I want to blanket the countryside with billboards prmoting gay rights, I have teh RIGHT to do that.

    April 2, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  17. Mike

    Yay! Now America can join the ranks of some of the world's finest oligarchies, including China, Russia, and South Africa! America – it was nice while it lasted.

    April 2, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  18. Voice of Reason

    And so democracy dies.

    April 2, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  19. tpobrienjr

    I'm really getting tired of the Supreme Court's "corporation as person" doctrine, as well as its "political contribution as proected speech" doctrine. When a corporation can be put in prison for cheating on income tax, and a political contributor can be punished for sponsoring false advertisements, I suppose that would be OK, but I think our self-serving Congress will protect itself by providing loopholes.

    April 2, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  20. Steve, New York City

    So .. this is the nail in the coffin – the NRA, the AIPAC, big oil and other criminal cartels have now officially taken over the US Government.

    April 2, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  21. Dead Bear

    I'm both disgusted and ashamed... Change the stars and stripes to a dollar bill and run it up the pole. Seems to be the only thing that matters in this country anymore.

    April 2, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  22. rmichael71

    Well it is now official: We are a Plutocracy. Why should anyone even bother to vote when the rich rule the outcome. I have voted each year for 54 years; but NO more..

    April 2, 2014 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  23. bubbabama

    reasonablebe, what a typical lib you are, soros didnt give any money to our destroyer in chief, aka the liar?

    April 2, 2014 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  24. Abbey

    Superb! Time to dismantle the Federal Election board!

    April 2, 2014 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  25. Bret

    Outrageous ruling. What in the hell are these justices thinking?

    April 2, 2014 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
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