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. Steve

    Today, we see the second half of the transformation of our government. First, it was Citizens United, where money became "speech." Now, we see the declaration that "spending" is "exercise." With the proclamation of its fiat, SCOTUS has officially declared this nation is no longer a representative democracy (a republic), but rather, made this nation a plutocracy/oligarchy, where only the few rich are entitled to speak upon politics, far above the din of all other voices. Shameful and loathsome are the Mighty Five, who today hath ruined a nation t'was conceived under the enlightened proposition that all are created equally.

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  2. bruce shaffer

    It's time for a constitutional amendment which requires Supreme Court justices to face review by the electorate every 4 years on an up/down (yes/no) note. Yes, they stay another four years. No, and they go!

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  3. Rick

    Just as I thought, the best government big money can buy. "For the people and by the people", the operative word here is BUY!

    April 2, 2014 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  4. John

    5 to 4 decision. Anyone surprised? Antonin Scalia should go hunting with what-a-Dick Cheney to see if anyone's aim has improved.

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  5. MaryM

    Welcome to the Corporate Con gress of America, All Americans bow down to your Masters

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  6. Willicri

    So so sad, watching our country get more and more corrupt without any way for change. They should be making it harder for rich and corporations to finance elections. Instead they make it easier. So much for our great country.

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  7. Suzette

    What this does is amplify the voice of the wealthy a thousand fold. How does this seem fair?

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  8. Lewis

    I think this is one issue that Americans, as a whole, can agree is a bad thing. Especially those of us that aren't considered "wealthy".

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  9. Walter Adams

    This Supreme Court will be the ruination of our nation. Now the 1% can control all the levers of power, leaving the 99% out in the cold. Just imagine how much worse it would be if a Republican president could stack the court with more right wing elitists! Goodbye America – hello Plutocracy.

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  10. Arsh

    Who cares, this country will have a revolution within 9 months anyway. Time to party like it's 1776!!!!!!

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  11. jdinblankets

    Money is speech, and corporations are people...This is not the country I believed in when I went to war for it.

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  12. Boo

    I am not voting anymore. I don't give a damn what happens to this lousy country anymore.

    April 2, 2014 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  13. Fair is Fair

    Why is everyone talking about corporations? This ruling had to do with INDIVIDUAL political contributions.

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  14. steve garry

    So I guess this means George Soros can buy another election!

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  15. rrjkr

    No Constitutional Amendment gives you the right to buy political office. Speaker Boehner is dead wrong,and should hide his face in shame. This ruling is very disappointing to those of us who would like to see more diversity in our elected representatives. Who actually believes that the winning candidate will represent the voice of his constituency, when a special interest has essentially paid for his seat.

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  16. tim

    boring. bring back flight 370 as the headliner!

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  17. Too bad - So sad

    Good – now the Democrats are really going to get their clocks cleaned in Nov 2104

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  18. TLORop

    The land of the rich and the home of the poor.

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  19. Neil

    This is how a democracy dies. GREAT job SCOTUS!

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  20. HenryMason

    The Supreme Court judges are owned by the Koch brothers.

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  21. Robert

    Well, if we didn't have the "best government money can buy" already, we will come November. This is the most asinine decision in recent memory. We only pretend to be a Constitutional Republic and give lip service to democracy. The general public suffers from too much apathy and ignorance and the wealthy buy opinions and feed them straight into the minds of the Sheeple. Like Rome, we will collapse from within.

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  22. James

    Not a big difference. Allowing the rich to fund Super Pacs with no limits is far worse than this.

    With the new rule, if you have 10,000 rich to start a club (lets call it GOP-SUP Club for the sake of argument) then collectively then they can fund each GOP candidate to the tune of $52 million dollars. Not bad. That should buy them
    half+1 of seats. So yes, a club of 10,000 can rule our democracy.

    April 2, 2014 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  23. Jim Bob Sweeey

    In a room full of ideas the rich now have a megaphone. Why don't they just say they can write checks to the politicians and do away with the elections? This is really bad.....

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  24. nonono

    This is the worst ruling since citizens united. I guess a French style uprising is needed.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  25. rootvg

    I don't think any of this should be a surprise. Citizens United gave us all the clues we needed to see it coming.

    Someone above said the Fourth Estate is dead. Basically, yeah. That's not news, either.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
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