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. Smeagel4T

    Oh well... it was a nice sort-of-Democracy while it lasted. What this means is more and more corporations chowing down on taxpayer dollars at the trough while making sure that Americans don't get any government services that would cut into their tax dollar feeding frenzy.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  2. Andrew Friet

    Everybody complains about the Koch brothers spending. You do realize that unions contribute FAR more than those evil Koch brothers do.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  3. s

    This ruling stinks and we all know it

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  4. bskb

    This ruling makes sense. Why cap the number of candidates you can donate to? How is it okay to donate to 55 candidates but not 56? The number is completely arbitrary.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  5. A.concerned citizen

    Too bad that the corruption is now protected by a citizen's right to "free speech ". Third party candidates? The average American citizen? Naw , you don't have enough money to participate in democracy. A shame.

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  6. happynurse

    somewhere the koch brothers are rejoicing

    April 2, 2014 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  7. Julie

    This is a very sorry day. We had a great example just the other day, You have one billionaire buying the republican nominee on a foreign policy issue and a gaming issue in Nevada. Sounds like Ukraine or Russia. Buying your democratic representative .......

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  8. georgeW

    Well I guess the pretender-in-chief will have to call them out again at next SOTU?

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  9. macy

    So let the nepotism and corruption begin!

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  10. smendler

    Why don't we just cut to the chase and have Congress officially declare the US a plutocracy? Then we wouldn't to bother with all this hypocrisy abut being democratic.

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  11. Jim Jimson

    Conservative government at it's best:

    Sold to the highest bidder!

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  12. liz

    Just when you think the Supremes might actually do what is best for the country they sell to the highest bidder.
    They should hang their heads in shame !

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  13. Gunderson

    Um, Sorry,
    It amounts to something called Free Speech. It is in the Constitution you know. Just because somebody says something are you going to believe them? Lighten up. Remember Obama said, If you like your Health Plan you can keep your Heath Plan, Period. Many of you, Post here and forget to engage brain before open mouth. Do you wanna be Muzzled? Putin wants to Re-Invent the Old Soviet Union. Obama wants to Re-Invent the new Soviet Union. You buying? I guess so. You keep defending Obama and his adjenda, Lock, Stick, and Barrel. Hope you have good Retirement Plan.

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  14. Mike Buck

    Corporate Feudalism here we come!

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  15. AntiChrist

    Who has more money? Dems or Repubs? So thats where we are gonna go now. The money. We are scre wed.

    April 2, 2014 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  16. Barbara

    Great. Our government has been sold to the highest bidder.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  17. georgeW

    Yeah, Rick, BUY your obamacare under penalty of law.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  18. Tony

    This is bad. Scary bad.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  19. Friends

    Stupidity in this country.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  20. Yes It's Not

    YES! For a minute there I was worried that the Government was no longer going to be for sale to the highest bidder. Thank goodness for that. Now, let me just get my check book. I've got a feeling that my company is going to be getting a massive tax break, bloated government contract, and nice fat government subsidy next year.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  21. dike

    Usually the candidate with the most money wins... so why have an election just count the money instead of the votes. There wont be any problem with all the chads etc...

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  22. pablo1111

    Attention: CNN – it is disrespectful to present the flag of the United States as it is shown in the photo. Many men and women have died and served in war for the country and the flag is a symbol of the country they served.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  23. Chris K

    The USA is officially 100% corrupt after this ruling. I encourage readers of this comment to join represent dot us , the only group with feasible plan to end this nonsense.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  24. OldAsDirt

    The contributions that need to be limited are from those who have or seek contracts with the government. Put a 5 year window around employment, bids or contracts (including employees and subs of those with contracts) where contributions make you ineligible. Pay to play (including government unions) is worse for government than liberal or conservative idealism. Ideas are always visible, but crooks and cheats know government all too well.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  25. Jay

    Why not make it legal to buy politicians (oops, I mean "make a contribution") for any amount of money. I mean, why even have a limit? Christ.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
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