In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court strikes down overall limits on campaign contributions given by individual donors to candidates, political parties and political action committees, paving the way for donors to plough millions into federal campaigns
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Dealing a blow to campaign finance reform efforts, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a 5-4 decision that caps on aggregate amounts of political donations are unconstitutional under the First Amendment's protections on freedom of speech, clearing the way for donors to devote vast sums to federal political campaigns.
Delivering the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the protected purpose for campaign finance limits is to prevent "quid pro quo corruption and its appearance," finding that bulk donation limits how much wealthy individuals can spend on federal campaigns do not serve that purpose, "while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process." "The aggregate limits are therefore invalid under the First Amendment," he wrote in the majority opinion to the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
At issue was the $123,200 cap on overall spending-$48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all political action committees and parties-imposed by Congress and the Federal Election Commission, which was designed to limit the overall amount of money an individual could give directly to candidates-effectively, the court ruled, limiting the number of campaigns they could support. Donation limits to campaigns, set at $2,600 for individuals and $5,000 for parties and most PACs, were not the subject of the case.
"Congress's selection of a $5,200 base limit indicates its belief that contributions of that amount or less do not create a cognizable risk of corruption," Roberts wrote for the majority. "If there is no corruption concern in giving nine candidates up to $5,200 each, it is difficult to understand how a tenth candidate can be regarded as corruptible if given $1,801, and all others corruptible if given a dime. And if there is no risk that additional candidates will be corrupted by donations of up to $5,200, then the Government must defend the aggregate limits by demonstrating that they prevent circumvention of the base limits. The problem is that they do not serve that function in any meaningful way."
Shaun McCutcheon, a Republican donor, had hoped to max out donations to the three Republican Party committees in the 2012 presidential cycle, which would have placed him over the annual cap. He joined suit with the Republican National Committee in the fight to overturn the limits.
Individuals will now be able to donate up to the campaign contribution limit to as many candidates and political committees as they want. The court had previously ruled that political donations are a form of political speech in decisions that rolled back campaign finance provisions, including the Citizens United and Speak Now decisions, which created Super PACs and allowed unlimited independent expenditures on the part of corporations.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Breyer, wrote that the decision "creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign," and that with the Citizens United decision, "eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve." He argued that the majority's more tailored definition of corruption is inconsistent with the Court's prior rulings.
The Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tougher campaign finance rules, blasted the decision Wednesday in a statement. ""Once again, the Roberts Court exhibits its complete ignorance of political realities," the group said.
In a statement, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called the ruling "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." Following the decision, anti-campaign finance reform advocates are expected to push forward with legal challenges to the base campaign finance limits.