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. TomGI

    "Justices strike down political donor limits"

    Of course they do. Listen to Ralph Nader's NPR program regarding The Corporate Government of the US. & the 5-4 Supreme Court debacle.

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  2. Vusani

    Return to the Golden Rule...he who has the gold, makes the rules.

    April 2, 2014 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  3. Ralph in Orange Park FL

    Another milestone on the road to fascism.

    April 2, 2014 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  4. LeRoy_Was_Here

    Thanks, SCOTUS. Thanks to the Supreme Court, we now have the best government that money can buy! What's not to like??

    The majority on the Court continue to confuse money with speech. I think a smart second-grader could explain the difference to them.

    April 2, 2014 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  5. wow

    What does it matter? The entire system is so corrupt.

    April 2, 2014 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  6. Rudy NYC

    Whatever happened to all men are created equal? When did that change to "all money" is created equal? If money is speech, then doesn't that mean that "money talks"? They've legalized politically bribery. They're legislating from the bench.

    April 2, 2014 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  7. Kurt Schofield

    The only good thing that comes out of this is the fact that the court is officially admitting what we've all known for years. The entire US government is up for sale to the highest bidder. Government is like legal care and medical care in the US – The more money you have, the better it is for you. That's not democracy, that's plutocracy.
    When do we start the general strike and put the barricades up in the streets? That's about the only recourse left for the common man.

    April 2, 2014 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  8. Rosslaw

    Next we'll undoubtedly learn that money laundering is a sacred First Amendment right that our Founding Fathers and the Cali cartel fought and died for. And be sure not to let anyone know what person or country is making the contribution as that might expose the the contributor to, you know, being exposed!

    April 2, 2014 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  9. Sniffit

    "No, Robespierre... the best solution to the probem is public financing – giving candidates EQUAL dollars and forcing them to run on their merits."

    If you think the MSM is going to support that and report on any initiative to do that in a manner that doesn't attempt to kill said initiative, then you are fooling yourself. Who do you think ultimately gets enriched by all the donation money that turns into advertising? The entire 4th estate would go into ad-revenue-defense-mode if there was even the slightest hint of a serious public funding proposal gaining traction.

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  10. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House

    Fascism at it's finest.

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  11. wendel

    what justice?. All you need is a lot of money and you can buy an election to bad Roberts is so young . .We have to put up with him for a long time yet.

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  12. Ian Brown

    Amazing how liberals think this is simply a right wing issue. I didn't here any liberals complaining about how Google, Microsoft, Walt Disney, Time Warner, Comcast, IBM and other major companies/Universities/US Government Agencies donated millions to Obama's campaign durring the last election.

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  13. Winifred

    No surprise here. This Court, like a few others in the past, is extremely political party oriented. No real surprise – surely no one has to tell anyone which party supported this? Does it boil down to what the original intent was to deter, that those with the most $$$ have the loudest voice? That is not Freedom of Speech in my book.+

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  14. Linda Bryson

    Disgusting! – Now we have to have competitions again on who can raise the most money....and we have to watch endless campaign commercials. There should be a set limit on how much they can spend on a campaign – 1 million each and that's it!!!

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  15. mike

    Right wing donors wasted millions on Romney. Now they can waste billions.

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  16. Dave T

    And with one final flush, the SCOTUS sends the last remnants of democracy swirling down the drain.

    April 2, 2014 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  17. Ian

    The United States of America – a division of Koch Industries.

    April 2, 2014 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  18. mindstorms1

    Why not just post political positions on eBay and let people purchase them?

    April 2, 2014 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  19. Allan

    Freedom of speech. It's just that the rich get to talk a lot more.

    April 2, 2014 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  20. Silence DoGood

    @Rusty Krus
    The French Revolution (French: Révolution française) was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France from 1789 to 1799 that profoundly affected French and modern history, marking the decline of POWERFUL MONARCHIES and churches and the rise of democracy and nationalism. POPULAR RESENTMENT of the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and ARITOCRACY grew amidst an economic crisis following TWO EXPENSIVE WARS and years of bad harvests, motivating demands for change.

    Think it can't happen here?
    Brilliant comment!
    The founders of this country left that kind of nonsense behind in Europe and wanted a new land free from aristocracy and theocracy. But we keep hearing from the Radical Right that our country needs to remove all barriers to runaway corporations and establish a state religion too! If they keep promoting this kind of dark future, something will break.

    April 2, 2014 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  21. truthbetold

    Our highest court just sold us out.

    April 2, 2014 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  22. Bagocheese

    Thank god the plane crash has been displaced.

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  23. ArthurP

    The US is now officially fracked.

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  24. Jim Jimson

    Republicans are determined to make sure America has the best government that money can buy.

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  25. Jeanneboo

    Anyone want to buy the government? It is for sale to the highest bidder. Corporations or the rich can be first in line.

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
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