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. Florida Guy

    Once again, CNN's bias is showing. By all means, let's limit free speech by telling people you can only spend what we say you can spend. From there, maybe we can tell folks you have to buy insurance. Oh, wait, we've already done that. Let me ask this question: how many of the outraged out there believe campaign spending limits should apply to unions, George Soros, and other liberal entities? Yeah, I thought so.

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

    This is asinine.

    I didn't think the Supreme Court was bought and paid for, but apparently it is.

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  3. john pickett

    I can see them lined outside the Polling places now holding signs "Will Vote for $$ or food"

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  4. jim

    So the Koch Brothers bought out the supreme court now they can buy out an election?

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  5. KewlKid

    Great, more Bush's and Obama's for years to come. grand.

    April 2, 2014 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  6. Anthony

    This means that Republicans will pour even more money into ads against the ACA. In all honesty, what other choice do Republicans have? Republicans don't have anything of their own to run on.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  7. Bubba Ray

    "Republicans represent Middle Class Amercia!"

    This is either the best sarcasm or the most clueless thing I have read in a long time.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  8. Jim Jimson

    When money equals "Speech", only those with the most money will ever be heard.

    R.I.P Democracy. You had a good run, but Republicans are determined to destroy you.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  9. mikeinthevine

    Best government money can buy. This Supreme Court is so badly in the pockets of the rich it's insane.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  10. Gee T

    Our government is just now available to the highest bidder? Its been this way for the past 50 years. We allowed this to happen so people need to stop pretending how shocked they are.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  11. jay howard

    It's the end of America. The Republicans have won. It's the end of abortion, civil rights, environmental protection, osha, food inspection. The big winners are the polluters,defense contractors and the rich. The US will look like Mexico City in 50 years.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  12. Rick

    Can't say we have a free country if you don't allow people to express their beliefs and donate accordingly.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  13. ezduzit757

    It is time for WE THE PEOPLE to realize that we have the power. We have what they want – a vote. That's what all this money is being spent for. To pay for advertisements that will try to trick us with misinformation into voting for those who will do the bidding of the super rich. To trick us into voting against our own best interest. They already have the tea-partiers and the GOP base fooled. They know that they just have to whip these fools into a frenzy with talk of Benghazi, Obamacare, and gun control – that will get them out to vote, but when EVERYONE votes, these fools don't have a chance. What we need is high voter turnout. That needs to be the goal. They know that and that's why they are doing everything they can to change the voting rules. Less sane voters and more misinformed and crazy voters is their only hope.

    April 2, 2014 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  14. Tom

    That's quite a country you got down there. When are you people going to get off your butts and take your country back.
    There needs to be rallys and marches like in the sixties. And it can't be the disorganized mess that Occupy was. Simply voting R or D does nothing.

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  15. Anonymous

    The most powerful nation in the world for sale, "when you already have all that money can buy".

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  16. Winston5

    Golly, my vote REALLY matters now.

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  17. popeye1128

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

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  18. ELMO

    I would love to trash the Supremes as an easy scapegoat for this but it is the failure of Congress and the Senate to write an appropriate law to deal with this issue. The Supremes are doing their ugly job of interpretation .

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  19. The REAL Truth...

    @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!
    Yup and Adelson and the Koch bros can buy (I mean contribute to) their pet conservative candidates and clauses too!
    The Grand Oligarchy Party are becoming the pigs of 1984.

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  20. Independent

    This is not democracy. The Republic has been replaced with a Corporate Oligarchy.

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  21. Pj

    If people stay informed, and know the issues, and not believe those ads all that money is going to buy, all the money in the world can't stop us from voting. Remember - one person, one vote! People really need to take the time and learn whats going on.

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  22. Johnny 5

    I'm still giving the same amount as I always have. ZERO. If you can't win by way of the people alone, then we don't want you.

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  23. Steve In SD

    And...democracy in the United States is now, officially, dead. Let the oligarchy reign supreme!

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  24. J Howard

    Individual limit $5200. Corporations are now people. Should that mean Corporations can only contribute $5200?

    April 2, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  25. Timothy C

    Regardless of your political affiliations, it's hard to understand how anyone can think this is a good idea. Democracy means one person, one vote. While political donations aren't the same as voting, this gives the ultra-rich an enormous advantage over the rest of us folks (including the middle class). I'm no liberal, but this was the wrong decision.

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
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