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. AboutTime

    A new front page story other than "more garbage found in the Indian ocean!" Finally.

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

    And so American democracy has ended...

    April 2, 2014 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  3. optimist5

    Even the Supreme Court hates the middle class. The poorest class has already been obliterated politically.

    April 2, 2014 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  4. cwindt

    The same forces at play that seek unlimited money in politics are the same forces that paid off the judges to allow such a law to be passed. The 1% and bankers that own our government and media create a dwindling hope for truth and a true democracy.

    April 2, 2014 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  5. grumpycat

    This is revolting.

    April 2, 2014 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  6. No one

    Legalized bribery, now court approved.

    April 2, 2014 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  7. tomasz

    This is the end -)

    April 2, 2014 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  8. ALLuh

    Nice job SCOTUS, the ruination of America. Ever heard of 1 person 1 vote? It was called democracy.

    April 2, 2014 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  9. Steve

    donation, is that what they call bribe these days.

    April 2, 2014 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  10. DaveinIL

    "so now the koch bros and mitt romney can just buy any election"
    Maybe, if they can spend more money than George Soros or Tom Steyer or the public sector unions on the Democrat side.

    April 2, 2014 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  11. G.Soros

    Yes we can!

    April 2, 2014 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  12. Anon.

    It must be easy to live in a world where "Koch Bros bad" is your mantra. How about George Soros or for that matter AFSCME? How many here are concerned that they are buying elections?

    April 2, 2014 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  13. Rudy NYC

    I just listened to Reince Preibus on the radio gloating over this decision. Why so much glee? It turns out that it was actually the RNC brought the suit, according to Preibus. He most pleased with the outcome because "it levels the playing field between the two parties."

    In other words, Republicans cannot keep up the number of small donors that Democrats have. Seeking a to change the rules through legislation would never get through Congress, specifically a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House. So, they changed the rules through the courts, and got the SCOTUS to legisltate from the bench for them.

    April 2, 2014 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  14. Gloria in NW

    I have voted faithfully since I was of age, long years ago, but it's beginning to seem really pointless. We have just officially become an oligarchy. The Court has just put the final nail in the coffin of what was left of American democracy.

    April 2, 2014 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  15. doh

    As usual, the supreme court sided with the 1%. Lets drop the tax deduction for campaign contributions.

    April 2, 2014 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  16. declan carney

    American democracy can now be sold to the highest bidder. In who’s world does money not corrupt? Clearly in the insular world of the 5 conservative justices.

    God (if you believe in one) help American democracy because you know Congress won't pass any bill to save the one person one vote idea. A dark day that will go down on the wrong side of history!

    April 2, 2014 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  17. olde dragon

    I guess our government is now officially for sale. Sad.

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  18. hemusbull

    I like the freedom fullness of US. What you can't buy you can buy it with big money!

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  19. Nodack

    OMG, my insurance rates went up, now I can only donate 54636475736357 to my favorite candidates.

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  20. I against I

    Shame. How can I compete with special interests? My "freedom of speech" is pretty much limited by how deep my pockets are. This is not a country anymore. It is a business.

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  21. Rich

    Whew. For a minute there I was worried that campaigns wouldn't have enough money to run!

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  22. TooSmart

    Get in line poor sheep. Your overseers are coming.

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  23. fred

    The problem isn't how much money is given or not. The problem is that too many voters are sheep willing to follow whatever nonsense is put out instead of being an informed voter. That goes both ways......there are people who vote democrat or republican REGARDLESS of what the issues are simply because they want their "team" to win. Last time I checked, the only thing that wins an election is votes....not who has more money. People complaining about the money are basically saying their vote can be bought.

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  24. Wyckette

    The US "hurts" the corrupt Russian president by seizing assets of his wealthy supporters. Or, is that a prediction for a future president of the US?

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  25. Truth Be Told

    Then you obviously look the other way when it comes to Fahr LLC, Tom and Jim Steyer. The single biggest donors to the Democrats, bigger then the Koch brothers Fahr LLC has donated $11,225,392.00

    April 2, 2014 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
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