Supreme Court voids overall campaign donor limits

Posted April 2, 2014

— The Supreme Court further loosened the reins on political giving Wednesday, ruling that big campaign donors can dole out money to as many candidates and political committees as they want as long as they abide by limits on contributions to each individual campaign.

In a 5-4 vote won by conservative justices, the court struck down limits in federal law on the total amount of money a contributor can give to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

The decision wipes away the overall limit of $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. It will allow the wealthiest contributors to pour millions of dollars into candidate and party coffers, although those contributions will be subject to disclosure under federal law. Big donors, acting independently of candidates and parties, already can spend unlimited amounts on attacks ads and other campaign efforts that have played an increasingly important role in elections.

The justices left in place limits on individual contributions to each candidate for president or Congress, now $2,600 per election.

The court's conservative majority, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, continued its run of decisions back to 2007 rejecting campaign finance limits as violations of the First Amendment speech rights of contributors. The most notable among those rulings was the 2010 decision in Citizens United that lifted limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions.

Roberts said the aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption, the rationale the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits.

The overall limits "intrude without justification on a citizen's ability to exercise 'the most fundamental First Amendment activities,'" Roberts said, quoting from the court's seminal 1976 campaign finance ruling in Buckley v. Valeo.

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome of the case, but wrote separately to say that he would have gone further and wiped away all contribution limits.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the liberal dissenters, said that the court's conservatives had "eviscerated our nation's campaign finance laws" through Wednesday's ruling and the Citizens United case.

"If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today's decision we fear will open a floodgate," Breyer said in comments from the bench. "It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institution. It creates, we think, a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign."

Roberts said the dissenters' fears were overstated because other federal laws prohibit the circumvention of the individual limits and big donors are more likely to spend a lot of money independently in support of a favored candidate.

Reaction to the ruling generally followed party lines, with advocates of capping money in politics aligned with Democrats in opposition to the decision.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the Supreme Court decision "an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse."

The GOP and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had argued that other decisions relaxing campaign finance rules had diminished the influence of political parties.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said, "This in itself is a small step, but another step on the road to ruination. It could lead to interpretations of the law that would result in the end of any fairness in the political system as we know it."

Congress enacted the limits in the wake of Watergate-era abuses to discourage big contributors from trying to buy legislative votes with their donations and to restore public confidence in the campaign finance system.

But in a series of rulings in recent years, the Roberts court has struck down provisions of federal law aimed at limiting the influence of big donors as unconstitutional curbs on free speech rights.

In the current case, Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala., the national Republican Party and Senate GOP leader McConnell challenged the overall limits on what contributors may give in a two-year federal election cycle. The limits for the current election cycle included a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to all candidates.

McCutcheon gave the symbolically significant amount of $1,776 to 15 candidates for Congress and wanted to give the same amount to 12 others. But doing so would have put him in violation of the cap.

Relatively few Americans play in the big leagues of political giving. Just under 650 donors contributed the maximum amount to candidates, PACs and parties in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The court did not heed warnings from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and advocates of campaign finance limits that donors would be able to funnel large amounts of money to a favored candidate in the absence of the overall limit.

The Republicans also called on the court to abandon its practice over nearly 40 years of evaluating limits on contributions less skeptically than restrictions on spending.

The differing levels of scrutiny have allowed the court to uphold most contribution limits, because of the potential for corruption when donors make large direct donations to candidates. At the same time, the court has found that independent spending does not pose the same risk of corruption and has applied a higher level of scrutiny to laws that seek to limit spending.

If the court were to drop the distinction between contributions and expenditures, even limits on contributions to individual candidates for Congress, currently $2,600 per election, would be threatened, said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of stringent campaign finance laws.

The case is McCutcheon v. FEC, 12-536.


Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.


Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter at: @shermancourt


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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Apr 3, 2014

    MEP said, “The Democrats [promise] handouts of taxpayer money through social welfare systems in exchange for votes.”

    You’re right. All those Mitt Romney "takers" who are retired and dependent on Social Security?...they need to be cut loose.

    And children only make up HALF of all foodstamp receivers, so why should we adults care? Feeding them is just to get votes. Everyone knows that kids do better in school when they don't eat, so society will get smarter too, right?

    So, we need to take your advice. Instead of these handouts, we need to continue to buy Trillion dollar fighter jets that don't work and keep giving several billion dollars annually to oil companies even during their record-profit years, as well as billions to workers of Wal-Mart, McDonald's and other corporations who don't pay their people enough to live on, etc.


  • Sumo Vita Apr 2, 2014

    Ok, I hate that too. So we agree on that. Now, tell us how the voucher system is going to change that?

  • ncouterbanks69 Apr 2, 2014

    Sometimes justice is actually still served in this country. This is one of the rare examples but I certainly welcome it.

  • Sumo Vita Apr 2, 2014

    Enough with the hints. What's holding YOU back? It wasn't too long ago that you were wailing about how your employer had changed insurance plans on you and forced you to pay more. So why are YOU subject to some employer's whim? Why aren't you independently wealthy? What's holding YOU back from "achieving enough wealth as you desire"? Remember, it isn't "the man".

  • loganwat Apr 2, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Republicans don't hate education. They hate that there is a free opportunity for poor people to get smarter. My father has been a professor at NCSU for 45 yrs in Education & has seen the Republicans do everything in their power to restrict education. They want to privatize, so their rich friends can receive vouchers to go to publicly funded private/charter schools. The only reason McCrory & NC Republican lead legislature changed their stance at all was because it was political suicide. They still are not doing enough, just the minimum to improve their public image.

  • dwntwnboy2 Apr 2, 2014

    "gut education?"- yep, when you take money away from the "public" education system and funnel into for profit, religious schools at the detriment of the "public" then that makes the "public" schools weaker- just what the repubs want. They want the money to funnel into their friends pockets without having to meet the same standards as a regular, normal, non-religious school that actually has EVERYONE'S best interest at heart, not just those in their congregation or that can write a big enough check.

  • for the people Apr 2, 2014

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    name something...anything...that the democrats have done in a significant manner to cut down on corporate welfare.


  • Lorna Schuler Apr 2, 2014
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    That made me smile. It amazes me that anybody believes that his/her party....either R or D is pure as the driven snow and only concerned about the citizens. NONE of them are. There are no poor Democrat politicians. They have money, lots of it and it comes from the same source types as money to the Repubs. Can't believe so many are so blind.

  • for the people Apr 2, 2014

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    scubagirl, of course the gop wanted this. they get outspent by labor unions by an overwhelming margin!!

  • Inter Alios Apr 2, 2014

    1 person spending a million dollars can eviscerate the votes of a million voters. The Supreme Court with its asinine decisions is sending this country down the tubes. Time for a revolution.