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. rafterman11

    "Individuals can now give as much as they want in an election cycle, but current limits on donations to specific candidates remain."


    How long before that last restraint is removed? As long as it takes for some PAC to bring suit. This court will pass it 5-4 (again) – guaranteed.

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

    ...brought to you by the same people who brought us "corporations are people too". I assume this law applies to them as well...

    Why do we even have elections anymore? How about we just send candidates money, and whoever collects the most wins. I mean...that is basically what it comes down to. It is also in line with the main priority of our society, which is Capitalism and the acquisition of wealth.

    April 2, 2014 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  3. Todd

    Because our political system wasn't corrupted enough already

    April 2, 2014 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  4. Jez

    America is now for sell to any and all foreign interests. This is the worst group of "justices" ever. They all pander to foreign inerests. We Americans let ridiculous presidents get these clowns in. We are now getting our just deserts.

    April 2, 2014 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  5. dalewalk

    Yet another example of the Right's 'fair and balanced' view of their world. Americans should be taking this to the street now, but won't until the police state is fully established making it impossible to be heard. We've carved out quite a pathetic example of democracy now, haven't we?

    April 2, 2014 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  6. Bill

    The easiest method would be to limit the total amount any one person can raise, for a particular office. Congressman, $25K; Senator, 35K; President, $100K. Then write a law that says no commercials purchased by 3rd parties.

    This is nothing more than a big cash cow for politicians. I don't care what they say, they pocket way too much money!

    April 2, 2014 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  7. Chris

    The 1% have officially been given absolute power over the United States. This ruling is disgusting.

    April 2, 2014 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  8. BaldFacedTruth

    Government for sale!! Come get your not so fresh USA Government! GOVERNMENT FOR SALE!!!
    Treason trials needed for the SCOTUS!! Disband and destroy!

    April 2, 2014 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  9. De Odorizer

    .."Alan [wrote] Democrats want their cake and to eat it too – they are the party of the rich.
    Republicans represent Middle Class Amercia!..."

    Hahahaha, I love sarcasm or is it just your form of "double speak" that let's you get it all wrong? As a registered Democrat, I must say that none of my friends "own" Nascar teams, yachts, 3,4 mansions, casinos, corporations or get anywhere near the 1-percenter crowd.

    April 2, 2014 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  10. Bigd9749

    And the Bush legacy just keeps on giving,People complain about liberal judge's but it's the conserative ones that keep selling us out

    April 2, 2014 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  11. Margaret Canfield

    Wow, what a horrible decision no matter what side of the aisle you subscribe to. When you remove limits that opens the door to elections simply being "bought" and a whole lot more corruption.

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

    In America, the wealthier you are, the greater your power is in government. Middle class America needs to take their government back.

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

    This is a landmark decision.

    No longer restricted to purchasing a single corrupt politician, a filthy rich American can now purchase the complete set. Potentially, the entire US Congress!

    Next Up: corrupt politicians will be bought and sold on e-bay.

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

    Can't buy weed with your money, but you can buy a politician.

    April 2, 2014 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  15. Areyoua1percenter

    @Scott @optimist5- You two just hit the nail on the head. The ruling says indirectly that legislation goes to the highest bidder. Not a single politician in American can say that they can receive money, particularly a large amount of money from a donor and out right goes against them concerning legislation, ideology, and agenda. What I'd like to see is that political contribution can not be written off on taxes. If that is already in place, very well. This is a sad day regarding those who do not have the capita to allocate thousands to a political leader to get them to do their dam job; advocating for the people who do not have a voice.

    April 2, 2014 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  16. Dominican mama 4 Obama


    Obama brought in almost a BILLION dollars
    Yes he did from people that had no problem disclosing their names.
    Doesn't it make you feel at lest uneasy that someone who does NOT want their name divulged can contribute heavily to the candidacy of a or several individuals?
    Don't you want to know if they are even American or representing foreign interests?
    When you have big money involved as in Citizens United, for example, being contributed under the cloak of anonymity something is usually afoot,and not just freedom of speech as Bonehead will have you think.

    April 2, 2014 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  17. Via Dolorosa

    Where are the tea party patriots and the militia representatives and all those who talked about "needing a new little revolution" when you really need them??
    With Supreme Court decisions like that, no need to "call for a revolution"... that will all happen on its own, sooner than the "corporations who are people too" think...

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

    How many politicans can you buy? Like Pokemon, Gotta own them All!

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

    I have always said: In the United States money is more important than health, life, humanity and common sense. Now we can add democracy to the list.

    April 2, 2014 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  20. DJ Reality

    Rest In Piece America. Thank the Supreme Court for destroying America. Soon all politicians will look like NASCAR racers. What happened to the country I loved... Republicans that's what. They betrayed our tax code. They send our young to war. They have failed our country. Wake up America! They serve the rich! Not the red, white and blue!!!

    April 2, 2014 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  21. Punctus

    Thank God! Now the Koch brothers can finally get their money's worth!

    April 2, 2014 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  22. m123

    Lots of politicians happy over this ruling, just in time for nov elections
    Lets see who sells out the most

    April 2, 2014 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  23. DJ Reality

    Republicans have caused all the problems they are investigating....

    April 2, 2014 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  24. Rembrant

    It is time to throw these old demented biddies and goats out of the "justice" system and start a real democracy.

    April 2, 2014 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  25. Stoszm

    The interpretation by the pathetic SC that campaign finance limits is a "free speech" issue is the hugest of oxymorons. Nothing is "free" about speech in campaigns anymore; it's "more money, more speech", with the biggest money buying the loudest voice. Well, the oligarchs and their cronies will have their way for a while, and when the serfs can no longer buy their crap or feed thamselves, there will be a reckoning. The day is looming.

    April 2, 2014 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
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