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. James

    Once again the supposedly the judges that suppose to not side with either politically party has show that they will vote along party lines. The rich gets to buy votes and offices were the middle class and poor don't get the same excess to politicians.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  2. Mancee Grayce

    That's it. I'm done. I can't afford to vote in a corrupted, rigged "election" system. It's one dollar = one vote now, and I simply can not compete. Hasta la vista amerikkka.

    April 2, 2014 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  3. Flashman

    I think some commenters are being overwrought. I have no problem with unlimited overall contributions by named contributors and believe the Court ruled correctly. The real issue I believe most people are concerned about is the unattributed contributions to PACs, which this ruling wasn't about.

    April 2, 2014 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  4. Chilebreath

    So I guess George Soros is free to continue to give millions every year to his pet liberal candidates and causes. That's just peachy!

    April 2, 2014 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  5. FigEater

    The veil of democracy has been removed and the oligarchy is showing its face. This ruling is absolutely frightening. It is ironic how "freedom loving conservatives" are being led by the nose down a slippery slope.

    April 2, 2014 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  6. Linda Doucett

    The Supreme Court is owned and operated by elite corporations. The Oligarchs no longer need to keep up the sham of Democracy as they know the American public will sit still for anything. How they must be laughing.

    April 2, 2014 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  7. Mary

    I have always been optimistic that our country would persevere. That American spirit and pride and shear determination would pull us through to the other (better) side of the problems we face as a nation. I no longer have faith that is true. After the corporations are people decision by SCOTUS, I began to have doubts, now all doubts are removed. We will soon be an oligarchy which is defined as "government by the few; a government in which a small group exercises control esp. for corrupt and selfish purposes". We have been rapidly approaching a time when we have two classes in this country, the very rich and the people they view as their servants.

    April 2, 2014 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  8. Jeff Lowden

    Ever hear of the Golden Rule? The person with all the gold make the rules...

    April 2, 2014 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  9. filthburger

    Go Republicans!!!!!! sigh.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  10. Dan

    Great! *sarcasm button*

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  11. judith

    Roberts is by, for and of the rich, as are all the conservative appointees. This is a horribly dangerous decision that will do nothing but harm.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  12. Carolyn

    The 99% CANNOT compete with this – where is OUR free speech? But in the end if the American people tolerate this ruling, well then they are to blame. Perhaps its time for a (totally peaceful but determined) American Spring?

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  13. Captain Gort

    In America...EVERYTHING is for sale to the highest bidder. That's the principle upon which this country was built.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  14. CTed

    We need a Campiagn finance amendment. Each individual can donate to a candidate, that limit can be restricted to a certain amount by Congress.

    No corporation, group, union, or any other association of persons may contribute any money to any candidate for office, though they may encourage their membership to do so.

    Any group may produce their own radio, TV, print or other adds, events, etc regarding issues they support or oppose an may endorse candidates that share their views.

    While not perfect this should be what politics look like.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  15. Larry L

    Another ruling by the Republican Supreme Court. I hope to never hear any conservatives speak again about the unfairness of the "liberal courts". This group of conservatives in control of the U.S. Supreme Court tend to vote the way they "wish" the Constitution should read. They make laws rather than interpret them. This is a big win for the top 1% and the corporations who buy our political leaders.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  16. popeye1128

    Just burn the Constitution and get it over with. More money, more of say in government. Always a dirty little secret but now openly sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  17. Jeff

    I love how supporters of this try to make it seem like it's free speech for the little guy. No. It's designed to allow the uber rich to throw money at elections all over the country in order to shape our legislatuve body to a way that benefits them. I think that candidates should only be allowed to accept money from registered voters in their district. Simple as that. I shouldn't have MY representative to Congress, who represents MY district in congress be decided or influenced by donations from across the country.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  18. Anonymous

    Progress for wealthy people is an increase in wealth and position relative to other wealthy powerful families. Progress for common people is social progress like public education for our children and an end to slavery and technological progress like electric power, powered flight and wireless communication. It is not a coincidence that all progress for common people occurred after wealthy kings, emperors and pharaohs stopped doing the deciding and the people started.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  19. Brad Krueger

    Sad!! Campaign reform with all candidates getting an equal chance to put forward their views is doomed under this ruling. Step right up and sell your soul to the big money.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  20. jeff in wayne

    Yep, let's review what the Supreme Court has done over the past few years:

    1. Allowed governments to take your home in order to build shopping malls
    2. Said that corporations are "people" and can't be kept from making campaign donations
    3. And now they've said you can't limit how much they spend

    See a pattern? I sure do – and the pattern is all against the average Joe. Hell, they won't even NEED lobbyists anymore – they can just "go direct" and save even THAT expenditure.

    Can you say, "plutocracy"? And I'm not talking "Mickey Mouse"!!!!

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  21. Antwoine Anderson

    Survival of the wealthiest..... Since a corporation is a non-living entity... should its "speach" be protected by our constitution as the justices have ruled?

    "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."

    So the Koch brothers themselves are limited to 5,200 dollar donations.... but the company, Koch Industries can donate millions upon millions...

    Warren Buffet 5,200... but Berkshire Hathaway... con contribute limitless funds. What I do not understand is how rights are afforded to non-living, faceless corporations and corporate interest while the rights of the people that make the decisions of how that company spends its earnings is limited to 5,200 bucks? Isn't this just spitting hairs? You should remove all restrictions or restrict all.... either way..campaigns are not won..they are purchased.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  22. Chilebreath

    This is good news for George Soros.

    April 2, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  23. VegasSmitty

    Time to "strike down" the SCOTUS!

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  24. remy730

    this is great, goes along perfectly with how much justice you can afford. Robert H. Richards IV can now buy himself a politician to go with his judge.

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  25. ming

    Show me the money!!!!

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
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