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. Bryan

    This government as a whole keeps doing more and more to prop up the super rich and the corporations while most people in this country are distracted by buzz words like "abortion", "terror", "gay marriage", "welfare fraud" "gun rights" and "immigration". The top one percent have most of the political clout because they have most of the money and that money essentially buys legislation in the interests of those who donate the most. Average Americans don't have that kind of pull.

    April 2, 2014 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  2. John Smith

    US Bought and Paid for. No more needs to be said.

    April 2, 2014 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  3. crabman1

    now even bribes are legal ---

    April 2, 2014 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  4. Plutocracy 2014

    Well isn't this great. Welcome to the United States Plutocracy. Thank you, conservative Supreme Court justices. "Oh my poor freedom of speech, because I have so much money to try and influence politics to provide me, myself and I enormous benefits at the expense of those who are much less fortunate!" I'm literally gagging right now.

    April 2, 2014 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  5. rrjkr

    Conservatives who tout this as a victory have forgotten that this blade may cut both ways. Their are plenty of wealthy Liberals out their who will now enjoy the same benefit. Those people are now free to vigorously pursue their agendas as well. Let the spending wars begin!!

    April 2, 2014 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  6. Hex

    This is why I don't vote. People can say whatever they want, but the system is broken and you have no real choice. In order to get into the two party system in general you have to be rich or groomed by the rich. Until there's someone worth voting for....no thanks. I still get to complain because you have yet to give me a normal individual that isn't super rich or tied to big banks and business.

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  7. Chris

    Principles bought and paid for.

    government of the dollar, by the dollar, for the dollar, shall not perish from the earth.

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  8. NewIdeas

    Unions and some other groups should be allowed to spend as much as they want on campaigns. But, corporations and individuals should be limited.

    Somehow this logic doesn't stand up to the smell test.

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  9. Hex

    I say we try these justices.

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

    Perhaps it is time to simply stop voting and thus at least not to, by not voting, provide legitimacy to this farce.

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  11. kit76kat

    Do I have the right to sell my vote to a highest bidder?

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  12. Grumpster

    Just look at the smirk on that judge's face. There need to be term limits on supreme court jesters...er...judges.

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  13. Asturiano

    Government Of the Rich, By the Rich and For the Rich. Just ask the Rich.

    April 2, 2014 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  14. Dave in Houston

    Another partisan vote by the supposedly 'impartial' supreme court. Our political system has become a joke. Honestly, this is what we get when LAWYERS run everything.

    April 2, 2014 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  15. JJ Glanton

    Thank god the Court is getting something right for a change! I'm sure millions and millions of Americans are now rejoicing that they will no longer be constrained from fully participating in our democracy, now that they're able to give over $100K in political donations over two years. The equality of the law becomes more majestic by the day.

    April 2, 2014 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  16. Nate

    This ruling is more sinister than scenes straight from Netflix's House of Cards which one would be led to believe is an embellishment of the truth as it is. Guess not. We're no better than that stinkhole called Russia...

    April 2, 2014 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  17. John Smith

    China no longer has to invest in their military, they can put that money towards buying the US government and use the US as their lackey. No bloodshed just buy the farm.

    April 2, 2014 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    Well so much for stare decisis, the respect for previous precedents. Republicans accuse liberal judges of activism, but when they strike down long-established laws, THEY are the judicial activists. Anyway, the PACs get around these laws anyway, but now individuals won't have to funnel their money. Americans need to suffer more from plutocracy, I'm afraid. That's why we got this ruling. Money can absolutely buy an election. Money isn't speech either. Speech is done with your mouth.

    April 2, 2014 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  19. mongoo

    And so ........the rich have officially taken over the world. It's not like they didn't already own every politician in office. It's just more out in the open, like coming out of the closet. Whatever.

    April 2, 2014 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  20. bmullan

    There goes Democracy out the window.

    Our Founding Fathers probably would not like this idea much as the "Every Citizen is Equal under the Law" doesn't mean crap after this ruling.

    April 2, 2014 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  21. ColdBlueNorth

    I thought that the Supreme Court was created to protect our democracy – by allowing corporations to donate as individuals and allowing unlimited campaign financing they are missing the bigger picture of how the influence of a minority with large cash resources can have a disproportionate and detrimental effect on fair and balanced elections.

    I doubt the first amendment was ever intended to be stood on it's head and result in our Supremely Misguided Court advocating political spending as a form of protected speech under the First Amendment or allowing corporations made up of disparate political views to be donate to campaigns as individuals.

    I have heard some of the Court arguments in other areas and have been impressed with their thoughtful dialogue; this interpretation has always baffled me and does not serve the best interest of this nation.

    If the Supreme Court needs any proof of how well the election process is working they need only look to the terrible bi-partisan performance of our Congress – I believe it holds the distinction of being the worst congress in this nation's history.

    April 2, 2014 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  22. John Shumer

    I feel the court has got this right. The wealthy of this country should have the right to express their thoughts and views as they wish, it is there money! If the bottom feeders of society have a problem with it, go start a business and make your millions and support your party.

    April 2, 2014 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  23. maggiwood

    Not sure why ANYBODY would like this ruling, except the VERY wealthy! Time to tax these organizations! In fact, time to get rid of ALL tax exemptions! This country was founded on American people, NOT money, now it will be ruled by money! Should NOT matter what party you are a part of, this is BAD for any American NOT in the 1% wealth class!

    April 2, 2014 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  24. Anonymous

    The Supreme Court justices should expect to stand trial for treason, insurection and Rebellion, just like Obama and the rest of Congress.

    April 2, 2014 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  25. Aaron Richard

    I dare say we are the most corrupt country on Earth. How about no money? Just debates aired on television, no wasteful campaigning. AND how about single terms. Enough with the career politicians. Politics used to be about the people but that is clearly not the case today. Real change is needed.

    April 2, 2014 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
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