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. Walter

    BWAHAHAHAHA! Liberals are going to LOSE THEIR MINDS!!! LMMFAO!

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

    Get ready to turn off your television for the next 5 months; if you thought the commercials were overwhelming before, imagine how many there will be this time around.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  3. avid Flyer

    I don't mind the donations since unions force there constituents to pay for their party but what I would like to see is voter ID cards for voting, we have seen many dead Democrats vote in past elections I say lets let them be dead and not vote if they can't sow a valid U.S. I.D.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  4. Steve

    FOR SALE: Political court justices. New legislation, Legislation approval. Cash only or Cayman Island deposits welcome!

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  5. Brian

    Wow. Can the Supreme Court get any more corrupt? Thanks Republicans for putting these guys in office. If you don't need another reason not to vote for Republicans, this should be pretty clear. They transparently favor the super wealthy. If you can't see that anymore, you are completely blind.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  6. FrankinSD

    If all forms of political donation are now speech rather than money, how can there be such a thing as bribery? It seems that political conservatives are coming close to their goal of completely destroying the legitimacy of popular government – which will leave only one kind of power in society. The power of money.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  7. Jim Jimson

    R.I.P. American Democracy

    You had a good run.

    April 2, 2014 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  8. sean

    Not good. Who has all the money?

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  9. Jon

    This isn't the Supreme Court's fault. They interpret the law. Why don't we all review our 8th-grade social studies books and realize that it's Congress' job to create or change laws. Then, why don't we all call/write our elected representatives and demand that they introduce or support new legislation to curb big money in campaigns.

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  10. stevie68a

    So very disgusting. This will be regarded as the moment that the USA was destroyed by big money.

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  11. Ryan

    Saying this is about freedom of speech is just the same as phone book companies and telemarketers are practicing their freedom of speech to deliver you unwatned junk mail and phone calls late at night. A twisted perversion of the spirit of the law. More accurately it's about freedom to influence by the most wealthy in this country. The average person isn't slanging thousands of dollars political candidates, so this only affects the ability of corporations and the super rich to bend politicians to their will which is – surprise – to make more money. We're ever being delivered into the pockets of big business and the very rich by our "representatives".

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  12. Walter

    Funny how it's a "right" to smoke pot, kill babies and illegally cross borders.

    But give to a political cause? OUTRAGEOUS!


    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  13. KBNJ

    Bottom line is everyone still has ONE vote.
    None of this matters if everyone ignores the ads and the media lies and does an hour of research on their own.
    Soros and the Kochs can't buy your vote, they can only pay for ads.

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  14. Winning

    We need term limits on supreme court justices. I am convinced of that now. The slough of horrid decisions coming from this court is unprecedented. This honestly makes me want to consider moving to Europe or Australia. I know I'm going to get a whole bunch of "don't let the door hit ya" type comments, but I don't care. Congress will never fix this problem in our day and age. They don't fix problems anymore, they just bicker. Because of that fact of life, I believe today I witnessed the end of our democracy.

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  15. CJ

    So they finally took the right to vote away from us, I don't have a million dollars...

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  16. ConfusedReader

    I'm confused. What does this have to do with the missing Malaysian airplane?

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  17. EddyL

    Radical right-winger judges are a joke to justice. They need to GO.

    April 2, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  18. MightyMoo

    Now America is truely finished as a great nation. Game over fokes, you can hang it up and call it a country now.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  19. Patrick

    I love the "unbiased" reporting MSCNN does. Just the facts!

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  20. Dave

    This news is going to really spoil the celebrations still going on over reaching the Obamacare enrollment target. I understand that as a consolation all those who enrolled were automatically entered into a drawing to win the Brooklyn Bridge.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  21. Anonimouse

    Corporations are people..

    "Four of the people, buy the people."

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  22. DB Cooper

    The sale of American democracy is now complete. The 1% will now run politically amok...good luck to the rest of us!

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  23. rootvg

    Bruce, that is precisely what the Founders did not want and wrote it into the Constitution. It'll never happen.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  24. Steven Manson

    I'm 100% certain our Founding Fathers had Political Donations in mind when they created the First Amendment.

    /sarcasm off

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  25. Greg

    "Free" speech is getting expensive.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
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