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. bee13zzz

    Why-oh-why would SCOTUS swing open the floodgates that were built to contain disproportionate voter influence & corruption? In the shadow of all the government, corporate & banking corruption, why would they intentionally diminish the voting power from the common man & woman and place it in the lap of the ultra-rich?

    It just doesn't make sense…UNLESS THIS WAS THEIR PURPOSE & OBJECTIVE.

    This action creates an undeniable impression that the democratic voting system of the United States is rigged in favor of the wealthy and that the Supreme Court is but a tool of the rich. The rich can now legally drown out the voice of the common citizen in the voting booth by simply poring in vast campaign contributions. The average citizen has, for all intents & purposes, been removed from the voting process with this revelation!

    Our Supreme Court has handed the virtual keys of the United States election process over to the richest of the rich! Where does that leave the ordinary citizen & his or her lowly vote?

    April 2, 2014 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  2. Paul

    Another example of the republicans attempting to buy control of the country.

    April 2, 2014 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  3. RUDucky2

    Perhaps what needs to happen is that somebody has to express a few million dollars of free speech into the hands of the conservative justices to get them to see the other point of view.

    April 2, 2014 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  4. RonTx

    Anybody remember the days when you had to own property to vote or the poll tax to vote. Watch as these may be brought up in legislation in the future by our bought & paid for politicians. Think it can not occur, I never thought that corporations could be considered people or unlimited amount of money could be spent in elections. SCOTUS seems to favor rulings for the rich and powerful. Non-political, RIGHT. This is bad for the country unless you have so much money you can buy whatever or whoever you want. Money now talks.

    April 2, 2014 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  5. Gwats

    So, basically the Supremes just put all elections up for sale? Nice job, dill-weeds.

    April 2, 2014 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  6. RonTx

    Might not be so bad if advertisements had to be truthful but we all know better. May the best liar win. Already happening.

    April 2, 2014 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  7. eqgold

    Corruption can be found at all levels, from small state colleges to the Supreme court. Very disappointing.

    April 2, 2014 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  8. TNPatriot


    Perhaps what needs to happen is that somebody has to express a few million dollars of free speech into the hands of the conservative justices to get them to see the other point of view.
    That's part of the problem, Alito and Thomas are already both on the Koch brothers payroll.

    April 2, 2014 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  9. Wake Up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    Hunger Games, here we come.....

    April 2, 2014 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |


    Meanwhile team Obama is busy gassing people in order to promote his political agenda.Subjecting innocent civilians to noxious gases that can kiill you in order to promote a political agenda. Hmm, when did that happen before?
    The Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting dangerous experiments on humans over the past few years in order to justify more onerous clean air regulations.
    The agency conducted tests on people with health issues and the elderly, exposing them to high levels of potentially lethal pollutants, without disclosing the risks of cancer and death, according to a newly released government report.
    These experiments exposed people, including those with asthma and heart problems, to dangerously high levels of toxic pollutants, including diesel fumes, reads a EPA inspector general report obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation. The EPA also exposed people with health issues to levels of pollutants up to 50 times greater than the agency says is safe for humans.
    The EPA conducted five experiments in 2010 and 2011 to look at the health effects of particulate matter, or PM, and diesel exhaust on humans. The IG’s report found that the EPA did get consent forms from 81 people in five studies. But the IG also found that “exposure risks were not always consistently represented.”
    “Further, the EPA did not include information on long-term cancer risks in its diesel exhaust studies’ consent forms,” the IG’s report noted. “An EPA manager considered these long-term risks minimal for short-term study exposures” but “human subjects were not informed of this risk in the consent form.”

    April 2, 2014 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  11. BrawndoTheThirstMutilator

    I agree that a good way to combat this would be to go out and vote based upon unbiased information about candidates. Except that will now be nearly impossible to do (i.e. many are unable or unwilling to put the work in to sift through the manure to find said information, and believe me, there is a lot more manure coming). That would also require educated voters. I can't speak for everyone in the country, but at least in MN and WI funding is also being pulled from education.

    One final but unrelated note – this is not a partisan issue. It affects both sides, the full 99% of Americans that don't have thousands in pocket change to throw at corrupt politicians. Using this as a way to bolster your partisan (Democrat / Republican alike) agenda only reveals that you are a puppet to these criminal pigs. And yes, it is time for a revolution.

    April 2, 2014 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  12. Shocked

    Not shocked that the Supreme Court vote went this way. What's shocking to me is that all the poor people in America don't see this and think, "wait, why are Republicans so happy about this and the Democrats are appalled?" Until the majority of Americans stop voting with their religious beliefs and start voting with which party actually cares about them, the GOP wins. They will continue to use fear-mongering and religion to scare the poor into voting for Republicans, and then continue to put forth legislation which stomps on the poor and middle class. If only the American public were smart enough to see this.

    April 2, 2014 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  13. Arun

    The right wing justices are really impartial since they hang out with the Koch's on retreats. Way to go you idiots!!!

    April 2, 2014 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  14. Paul

    This (someone counting money) is the sound of freedom dying.

    April 2, 2014 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  15. Roz

    And the 98% have just been buggered!! What a load of manure – my country, thanks to Conservatives, is Fubar. I did not serve my nation and work honest and hard to be sold out at 59. I am ready to declare a revolution – bring it on. Conservatives must go – they worship only money and power to everyone else's detriment. Shame!!!

    April 2, 2014 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  16. Really?

    Was anybody shocked by a Roberts court decison that favored the wealthy? i'll bet Clarence Thomas was burping up his lunch while the opinion was being read.... Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts -sounds like an international Mob law firm....Thomas Jefferson would NOT be happy ...

    April 2, 2014 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  17. john smith

    All of the drones in here bemoaning this decision certainly cheered this same court for the Obamacare decision. same court. same result. bigger government. pay up, suckers. Enjoy what you get. You asked for it.

    April 2, 2014 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  18. Lola Deville

    Agree, Democracy is dead. I'm so sick to my stomach at the sheer ignorance of this country when it comes to their rights and allowing big buisness to dictate laws.

    April 2, 2014 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  19. declan carney

    TRUTH & JUSTICE BE DAME IT'S MONEY THAT NOW RULES ALL..........maybe it's always has been that way in America, but now its no longer needs to be under that table! Some might argue that is a good thing, but make the corruption of democracy legal can never turn out well.

    April 2, 2014 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  20. GonzoinHouston

    To put this in perspective, imagine you and I having a public debate on some issue. We stand on our respective soap boxes and debate before the crowd. The only difference is that I have a large and powerful PA system and you don't. Any time you speak, I drown you out with volume. Not exactly fair, is it? This is apparently acceptable to our Supreme Court.

    April 2, 2014 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  21. Dallas

    I pray President Obama gets to appoint 1 or 2 more justices before his term ends. This country cannot operate with a Supreme Court so obviously bias and allowing the flood gates. We might as well be referred to as the United States of Koch at this point. Shame on you John Roberts and your ilk – you made a major mistake on this one!

    April 2, 2014 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  22. bigdolla

    Once again proves America has the best government money can buy.

    April 2, 2014 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  23. david rostambakhsh

    fact .this way can make worst ..

    April 2, 2014 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  24. JC

    It's funny that liberals want to limit individual spending, but when unions want to dump millions into a PAC they have no problem. I think the current limits are more than acceptable, although I think it needs to be limited to voting districts. If I want to give my senate, House, presidential, or local candidates the maximum contribution, then that should be my right. What I shouldn't be able to do is donate to campaigns in districts I don't live or vote in. Liberals forget that they actually started this. After the 2000 and 2004 elections they fought to redistrict several zones to benefit their regional candidates, and wanted to use outside funding to help those candidates in places like Florida and South Carolina. The GOP tried it and the left called it gerrymandering. When they do it it's called fair district adjustments. Definitions are funny things. But baxk to the union example, Obama railed against the bankruptcy aspect of the auto bailout because the UAW got in his war and forced his hand. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. The bailout money was given, which 1/3 went to the UAW, which in turn was partially used to fund Obamas superPAC. So while liberals fight about individual contributions, everyone's tax dollars, as well as money borrowed from China, went into Obamas campaign fund. So while you liberals bellyache over reduced limits on individual donations, just remember that you've already weighted the game in your favor. If you wanted more individual donors maybe you shouldn't have spent so much time buying the votes of the poor that you obviously don't really care about.

    April 2, 2014 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  25. duane - st.pete FL

    Obama must be really mad at this......I love it.

    April 2, 2014 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
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