Supreme Court struck down limits Wednesday in federal law on the
overall campaign contributions the biggest individual donors may make to
candidates, political parties and political action committees.
justices said in a 5-4 vote that Americans have a right to give the
legal maximum to candidates for Congress and president, as well as to
parties and PACs, without worrying that they will violate the law when
they bump up against a limit on all contributions, set at $123,200 for
2013 and 2014. That includes a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to
But their decision does not undermine limits on
individual contributions to candidates for president or Congress, now
$2,600 an election.
Chief Justice John Roberts announced the
decision, which split the court's liberal and conservative justices.
Roberts said the aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption, the
rationale the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits.
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, took the unusual step of reading a
summary of his opinion from the bench.
Congress enacted the limits
in the wake of Watergate-era abuses to discourage big contributors from
trying to buy 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.
Most notably, in
2010, the court divided 5 to4 in the Citizens United case to free
corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they wish on campaign
advocacy, as long as it is independent of candidates and their
campaigns. That decision did not affect contribution limits to
individual candidates, political parties and political action
Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala.,
the national Republican party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of
Kentucky challenged the overall limits on what contributors may give in a
two-year federal election cycle. The total is $123,200, including a
separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates, for 2013 and 2014.
Limits on individual contributions, currently $2,600 per election to candidates for Congress, are not at issue.
Relaxed campaign finance rules have reduced the influence of political parties, McConnell and the GOP argued.
gave the symbolically significant $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.
Nearly 650 donors contributed
the maximum amount to candidates, PACs and parties in the last election
cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
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
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.
levels of scrutiny have allowed the court to uphold most contribution
limits, because of the potential for corruption in 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.
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.
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