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. Scott

    The biggest problem in politics today and it just got worst. The common man has been unable to compete for Sen/ Cong jobs for a long time now and this completely sees to it he never does...Its like I have said for years, neither party gives a rat butt about the common people and now neither does the kangaroo court

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

    The party of High treason aka the GOP strikes again on our democracy

    April 2, 2014 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  3. Chris

    This is so funny. Last year, SOTUS was the most enlightened court ever because of their decisions and now a decision does go their way and you can read the response yourself......

    April 2, 2014 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  4. Tribal

    HAHAAH US officialy OWNED the Americans !!!
    You guys deserved what you are getting !
    For a while the only value in us was MUNNY and nothing else. Now you get what you deserve

    April 2, 2014 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  5. Paul Tan

    Shameful that the oligarchy continues to watch over its own interests rather than combat abuses and fraud that has plagued all 3 branches of government. There is truly no hope or justice in this once great nation.

    April 2, 2014 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  6. Michael Lee

    So basically

    The Conservative Judges voted for the rich

    and the Liberal Judges tried to stop it

    tell me again how both parties are the same ....in light of this decision......it sounds like if we had more liberal judges in the supreme court.....this would not have happened

    thank you conservative judges for once again ruining democracy.....and thank you conservative voters for being responsible for this

    April 2, 2014 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  7. timverba

    The problem is not the limit. The problem is that donations can be delivered to competing sides. If money is speech, then a donation is an endorsement. One should not be permitted to talk out of both sides of their mouth and give to both Republican and Democratic candidates. There should not be corporate contributions unless each individual of that corporation adheres to the endorsement of that corporation.

    April 2, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  8. Jme

    Now all these rich democrats are going to be able to buy elections without having to hide it.

    April 2, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  9. ProgressivesLikeHeadWinds

    Money isn't speech. Speech is something that contains words that come from your mouth, your pen or your keypad. Anyway, the Koch Brothers already bypass limits through giving to PACs. Now we must fight for Disclosure Act so people will realize what's going on. I wait for the moment in the near future when Tea Party folks finally realize they've been had. Shutting down the government should have been the first cue.

    April 2, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  10. PJ Parker

    Fox so-called News put this story on their front page, and disabled comments.

    They don't want to hear what we think, and they certainly don't want their brainwashed right wing voters to hear it.

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

    Yay the top 1% of America wins again! Who doesn't love democracy?

    April 2, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  12. mike electrician

    We were all walking around like zombies while, through the slow crawl of taking bits here and there of our freedom, we never spoke up. When there was a brief moment of resistance, the media started rumors, with I am sure the quiet blessing of the government that there was a wave of crimes being committed in the occupy wall street camps. We are all now nothing better than serfs.

    April 2, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  13. Hex

    For all the people saying this is how democracy has ended....where have you been?! This isn't new! This is just corrupt old people doing what they've been doing since they got into office.

    April 2, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  14. Brian Bauer

    The sky isn't falling, and here is why:

    There is already a vehicle to transfer funds to candidates beyond the Federal cap. People simply give the money to state parties, who transfer it to the candidates.

    The interest of the state, and the people, in protecting elections against corruption is still maintained by limiting the amount you may donate to each of the candidates directly. Those donation limits are still in place, and they are very low.

    Capping total contributions across all candidates incentivizes PAC and Interest group donations, which have always been unlimited. Since these organizations are not officially linked to the candidate, they usually operate by airing negative campaigns against opponent party's candidates.
    In essence, the money is already flowing into politics but doing so through these PACs and Interest groups. The people with money are not losing influence due to campaign finance reform, they have just been pursuing a different means of influence. At least now, more money that would have gone to PACs will flow to candidates, who are at least accountable for the messages they sponsor with the money.

    April 2, 2014 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  15. Scott Carey

    Very rich, mostly white men have always influenced elections. Now they can buy them outright.The founding fathers would have been proud.......

    April 2, 2014 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  16. Daniel

    I'm just glad to see a new breaking story.

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

    Thats what you are getting when "Makin munny" is the most important thing in your country !

    April 2, 2014 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  18. HangDiver

    Finally "Breaking News" that's actually about breaking news.

    April 2, 2014 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  19. Jim

    Maybe it's time to get rid of the silly illusion of "voting"
    The filthy rich insert candidates of their choice anyways.
    There's never a good choice anymore (if you're middle class)
    Special interests of sacks of cash to install their flag-bearer, whether it's a Left wing extreme or right wing extreme.
    ...Then as middle class we sit back and watch them explain how we're gonna get fleeced on the news.

    April 2, 2014 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  20. s

    comments and free speech are also controlled by gov many times

    April 2, 2014 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  21. Matt

    And so Liberty dies, with thunderous applause.

    April 2, 2014 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  22. Jeff

    Bring on even more corruption. How does this benefit anyone beside corporations with their own agendas?

    April 2, 2014 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  23. Ancient Texan

    If UNIONS are people and can donate hundreds of millions to the Democrats that in turn give millions to Unions, then Corporations and PACs are people.

    April 2, 2014 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  24. Robert

    So much for the American experiment. 200 years was the limit. It is over. The founding fathers are spinning in their graves. Those who have done this and supposedly "love" this nation will go down in history being known for their greed and nothing else.

    April 2, 2014 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  25. Tony

    The problem is that government has too much power.

    April 2, 2014 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
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