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. harrisonhits2

    And the corrupt supreme court expands the vast corruption allowed in Washington. We should hang the judges on the court and every member of congress along the Washington Mall and let the birds feast on their dead, bloated corpses as a lesson of what happens to people who betray the country.

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

    Welp hope everyone is ready for big companies to start poisoning us more than they already are. Our enviroment is most likely gonna take a hit. Just think of how much influence corporations are going to have now.... it was terrible already with the amount of power they could buy now its unchecked.

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  3. Unknown

    This is the most undemocratic branch of government. The Justices should either be reconfirmed by the Senate every 4 years, or face term limits.

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  4. John

    Looks as though the only way to save democracy in this country is to change the SCOTUS. The justices should remember the book "The Pelican Brief". You are never going to get any sensible rulings out of the justices to the right. Pretty soon we will have a government of the few, not the many. The more dollars you have, the more power you have. I sometimes think that a good investigation of the finances of the justices might just turn up some less than Honorable" dealings.

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  5. Clint

    More biased Supreme Court support for the wealthy who clearly buy influence and line their own pockets and positions with major monetary influence. A continuance of a travesty in our government that was for and by the people. Bring on more narrow minded, second rate "pocket" politicians. Nice work Supremes'. You could give Congress a run for the money.

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  6. Donnie the Lion

    America for sale, GOP rejoices!

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  7. Jones

    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. If you see an attack on the progress made by and for the common people understand that it is coming from those who have a different definition of progress and the power to elevate it over the people's idea of progress.

    April 2, 2014 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  8. Ron P

    Thank you to the five justices who braved the mainstream media circus that is sure to follow from the morons at MSNBC, PBS and here at CNN on reach a rational decision. The four who were opposed are Democrat and special interest robots.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  9. MaryM

    Justice Stevens dissent opinion of the Citizens United ruling:
    The Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.

    History will prove just how wise Justice Stevens was.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  10. bill

    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!

    Right, cause soros gives the most money. Look at who gives money to republicans, its much worse. Look at small donations vs large ones for GOP vs Dem candidates for president.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  11. Anonymous

    Big joke! A bunch of empty robes!

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  12. robert

    I still do not get the whole campaign contributions and the amount people are allowed to spend on a campaign. Why would anyone want to spend Hundreds of millions of dollars just to make a base Salary of $400,000. a year like Presidential campaigns. I would put limit on the amount that is allowed to be spent. If the President makes $400,000 a year, he should only be allowed to spend the amount he is going to make and the remainder should be put back into Government programs to help the poor,sick or disabled.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  13. RonTx

    The amount of money needed to get elected just went higher. There was an insane amount of money spent in the 2012 elections and now it will only get worse. Every politician should wear a sign that reads "Bought and paid for-brought to you by (fill-in largest donors-PAC'S). I can see future laws which will reduce taxes for the wealthy even further and increase the country's debt further due to reduced revenue. Time for a balanced budget amendment before the debt get so big that we lose everything to the ultra rich whose greed gets worse.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  14. Vijay

    If money = free speech, then why not even drop the fig leaf of 'the per candidate limit of $2,600 per election'.
    There should be a word other than 'democracy' for a system where money, not people, decide elections.
    How about "Corruptocracy’. It would also make us the most corrupt country in the world.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  15. Joe Noname

    CNN hasn't figured it out yet. The first sentence shows their political bias with the lead in "In another blow to federal election laws".

    The majority ruling stated that the limitation of accumulated dollars for candidate contributions was too limiting to the first amendment, not a blow the federal election laws. Keep trying CNN. Some day, you just might figure out why your viewership is so low, unless you are propping up the disappearance of a jetliner.

    April 2, 2014 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  16. Jim Jimson

    Fake News and Rush Limbough will call this another victory for "free speech".

    In a society where money is free speech, only billionaires and corporations will ever be heard.

    R.I.P. American Democracy.

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  17. Joe

    This almost puts the elections up for bids. However, money can [legally] facilitate a campaign, but it can't guarantee it's success. Success depends on votes and each citizen has ONE regardless of who they are. What that means is that political groups are going to have to do more to get out voters who know what is going on - and that is a major challenge.

    Maybe so much will be spent on advertising that we'll just ignore it as noise. It also means that communications amongst the electorate will be key. So maybe the rich will try to shut down the internet.

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  18. Naztex

    So where do I sign up to storm the captial lobby offices and corporate headquarters?

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  19. JEDDI

    Unfortunately we don't have the ability to return the merchandise but once every 2 to 4 yrs.) that ultimately is defective and (most often) fails to meet our expectations.

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  20. Jaellon

    The greater problem to address is not how much wealthy individuals can donate to political causes, but the reason why they are so inclined to donate in the first place. When a government has so much power over the affairs of its citizens that incentive exists to spend thousands, or even tens of thousands, to support a particular candidate, then plutocracy will exist, regardless of the efforts made to stamp it out. Legislation will always play catch-up to highly intelligent, highly motivated individuals.

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  21. coderjones

    Give it some time
    It will be law that you must have political insurance

    In case your candidate gets bought buy another interest group

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  22. Dave

    Let the buying begin....

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  23. Benster

    Truly disgusting. We are truly now a nation run by the rich. We might as well not hold elections anymore, just hold an auction with the winner going to the highest bidder.

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  24. Zarsizzle

    Just disgusting, no other word for it.

    April 2, 2014 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  25. NameRICHard

    I blame the party opposite to that which I agree with.

    April 2, 2014 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
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