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. Chris

    "Once the Supreme Court makes a decision it is the law and it is not going away. So, get over it and move on." President Obama after the ACA ruling. This is one of the few times I agree with the POTUS, the SCOTUS has ruled. Abide by the law.

    April 2, 2014 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  2. Dave

    Now you now how we felt when they upheld the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

    April 2, 2014 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  3. Chris

    Wait a minute everyone. Most of these post assume that voters are like sheep. I thought voters voted for the best candidate because of his values not because of his skin color or spent the most money? Are you now changing your tune?

    April 2, 2014 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  4. Axel Brooks

    Well everybody, it's been a good run, but democracy is finally dead in the USA. I'd like to thank the middle class for playing. We'll have some great memories to look back on as we enjoy our future straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.

    April 2, 2014 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  5. Mike

    I'm glad that somebody is paying attention, the GOP-appointed justices voted 5-4 to erode our rights even more. The Citizen's United was exactly the same. Anybody blaming the Dems for this is clearly misinformed at best.
    Try informing yourself:

    Antonin Scalia – Reagan

    Anthony Kennedy – Reagan

    Clarence Thomas – Bush, G. H. W.

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Clinton

    Stephen Breyer – Clinton

    John G. Roberts (Chief Justice) – Bush, G. W.

    Samuel Alito – Bush, G. W.

    It's 5 to 4 favoring the conserviatives.

    Sonia Sotomayor – Obama

    Kagan, Elena – Obama

    Mark Jecusco

    Funny People are blaming GOP. Most of the people on the Court are either Dems , or seated by them. Its a election year for the Dems to remain in the top seat and hoping to take over control of Congress.

    This is all Dem.


    April 2, 2014 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  6. neastsider

    Now gop/bagger politicians can be bought and sold for any price and elections and be rigged and forget the cost. the true American has the political door slammed shut in front of hum.

    April 2, 2014 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  7. scott goodwin

    ok folks is it just me or does it seem like nothing really matters anymore? I mean it seems like anything goes with the people who run our government. money or peoples rights no longer mean anything it's steal all the money we can while we are in office to enrich ourselves and take away common peoples rights.
    TIME FOR TAR AND FEATHER for the creeps in office that screw the American worker enough is enough

    April 2, 2014 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  8. The REAL Truth...

    SOLD TO HIGHEST BIDDER: The United States of America !!

    April 2, 2014 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  9. Jory

    We need to protest this! This is outrageous! Time to go back to the protests of the 60's!

    April 2, 2014 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  10. jrm03063

    What the GOP lacks in population base, they're trying to make up for in cash and with the "personification" of corporations – I suppose it's just a matter of time before we wind up as some dystopian cautionary tale....

    April 2, 2014 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  11. MommaG

    What happened to "We The People"? It appears to have been replaced by "We The Wealthy". This SCOTUS has done more harm to the democratic process in the past 4 years then any that I can remember or have studied. I understand the power of naming a justice now more than ever.

    Corporations are people, and now it appears that money is people too.

    April 2, 2014 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  12. jrm03063

    Someone should file suit right away – and claim that their corporation has a right to votes in proportion to its relative contribution to GDP. We might as well find out right now if the nation is going to be one with liberty and justice for the incorporated only.

    April 2, 2014 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  13. Notadolt

    Great decision! Now all the rich Republicans in Michigan can be sure to get the state government they purchased via the governor Rick Snyder/speaker Jase Bolger administration. More taxes for retired pensioners on fixed incomes and let the working middle class get poorer...

    April 2, 2014 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  14. declan carney

    The issue is not which party the money is going to or what the person giving or getting the money stands for. The issue is that this decision puts ever seat, local or national , up for sale to the highest bidder. Money has the power to corrupt, and lots of money WILL corrupt the biggest democracy in the world.

    American Democracy RIP

    BTW I'm make my living from online advertising so this is a banner day for our future bottom line but I'd rather have a strong democracy for my kids and for future generations then more money from political campaigns.

    April 2, 2014 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  15. max power

    What's American coming when you can't buy a politician? ?

    April 2, 2014 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  16. clarence leblanc

    they should just give the top tax bracket two votes…mayby a sliding scale. 250 k to 300 k…2 votes. 300 to 500….5 votes Funny how the most fundemental tennants of democracy … the vote … is being attacked in the US. Various voter supression laws…now this.

    April 2, 2014 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  17. I told you so

    Shame on this country. Im not as proud as I once was about being American.

    April 2, 2014 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  18. Mike Jones

    Liberalism will cause the death of our republic.

    April 2, 2014 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  19. An American

    Democracy has been on a downward spiral for a long time. Citizens United was the big killer. If something/someone does not pass sweeping changes we're going to end up like the less developed countries. Every and only every human with a heart beat get's a vote, notwithstanding current limitations, and should have equal caps on how much they are able to financially contribute to an election. My free speech should not be any more powerful/louder than your free speech simply because I have $10 dollars and you have $5.

    April 2, 2014 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  20. Independent Party

    Sad that some are too ignorant not to see how this ruling will squash our voice! Money by the select few have already corrupted our Politics in the past. Why would it not corrupt Politics today? Oh wait, it has been corrupting our Politicians for years, and unfortunately We The People no longer have an equal voice or vote!

    April 2, 2014 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  21. Sniffit

    BREAKING: Conservative SCOTUS justices decide that opening the floodgates of green is the way to counteract the rapidly growing prevalence of brown. Plutocracy now...story at 11.

    April 2, 2014 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  22. Larry

    I think the supreme court should hang a "for hire" sign outside its door!

    April 2, 2014 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    BTW, CNN, get on the ball. Breyer's dissent, yet again, shows without doubt just how outrageous and ridiculous the majority of Roberts' Court really is, how politically motivated they are and how willing to just ignore precedent and engage in specious and irrational "reasoning" that's quite obviously just skewed to give them the result they desire, not the result that the law and precedent mandate. He even provides a table that shows how one person can now manage, because of this ruling, to donate upwards of $3,600,000 TO JUST ONE CANDIDATE. It's an outrage and deliberately ignoring any reporting on the dissent gives away that you're just psyched about how much of an increase in campaign and PAC ad revenue this might mean for your network.

    April 2, 2014 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  24. pappy

    Corruption at its highest level.

    April 2, 2014 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  25. Chris

    Just in case any one had ANY doubts left that "our" government is up for sale to the highest bidder...time pull your head out of the clouds. In a country where corporations are people and spending money = freedom of speech, the only people who matter are the ones with money. Disgusting.

    April 2, 2014 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
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