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Supreme court strikes down overall limits on campaign contributions

U.S. Supreme Court
WASHINGTON April 2, 2014 (AP)
By MARK SHERMAN Associated Press

The 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.

The 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 candidates.

The decision 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 already can spend unlimited amounts on attacks ads and other outlets that have played an increasingly important role in campaigns.

But the court's 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.

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 2010 decision in Citizens United that lifted limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions.

"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."

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 to 4 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 committees.

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.

McCutcheon 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.

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 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.

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.


Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter at: @shermancourt

Join the discussion

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Etheral April 02 2014 at 11:00 PM


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Beverly Doyle April 03 2014 at 10:03 AM

I don't like any of the moneyed interests - billionaires, corporations, unions, PACs, or whoever/whatever - having so much influence over politicians. I would much prefer that we had publicly financed elections at all levels, and that every candidate was required by law to run their campaign within those means. IMO that is the only way politicians will ever be beholding to the people who elect them. Until that comes about (highly unlikely), we don't have a representative democracy that even comes close to being what the Founding Fathers envisioned. What the SCOTUS has done in recent years is allow money to take over the political process with increasing impunity. Quid pro quo? What's that (she asks facetiously)?

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1 reply
el21141 Beverly Doyle April 03 2014 at 11:28 AM

Very well said Beverly….what Scotus did today has caused a tremendous amount of damage to what we like to call" a country by the people and for the people".

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jscampco April 02 2014 at 9:44 PM

I hope the lifting of restrictions will not enable factions outside the US to fund our candidates such as direct and indirect funds from Saudi Arabia, who has and is playing a big role in American policy.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
AMedicGary April 02 2014 at 12:08 PM

great ...... our justice system promoting greed and corruption in our justice system, choosing money and power over fair and honest ...... imagine that.

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1 reply
TED AMedicGary April 02 2014 at 1:12 PM

Really......Greed is basic self preservation, when you want something for yourself but somebody else has to sacrifice for what you want, then is that greed?? Everyone has greed! Check out who the top wealthiest people and donors to support political agendas.....most are Progressive/ Liberal/ Elitists that believe in controlling others through regulations and laws..........That is pure greed...to believe people should only march to your drum because you are so much more informed and intellectually endowed............!!!

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2 replies
Al-Baby! TED April 03 2014 at 1:39 AM

You are so blinded by hate that it is probably pointless to communicate with you, but for your information, the top donors, like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, are Republicans.

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pmoore40 TED April 03 2014 at 10:20 AM

This is for Al-Baby. Shame you have been lied to . The Koch Brothers are 59th on the list of big money donors. Out of the top 58, majority are unions, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros, who donate to DEMOCRATS. YOUR hate has YOU blinded.

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Al-Baby! April 03 2014 at 1:41 AM

With one impeachment, we could change the balance on the Supreme Court. There is more than enough on Clarence Thomas to impeach, starting with his perjury before the Senate.

What are the Democrats waiting for?

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lgvxl42 April 03 2014 at 11:52 AM

.......A lot of "whizzing & moaning" going on, now. Makes me chuckle to see the carping of the left now that opponents are able to ante-up.
Unfortunately, it's the money that will determine the winner rather than the qualified earning it.

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Doug April 02 2014 at 5:53 PM

Great, lets ALL shout out a great big THANK YOU, GEORGE BUSH for appointing this "man" to Supreme Court"...they're just not going to be happy until the U.S. of A becomes a banana republic...complete with circus monkeys (AKA congres).

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1 reply
pmoore40 Doug April 03 2014 at 8:12 AM

1. you have a problem with the Constitution and Bill of Rights and want it dismantled
2. you have NO problem with Bill Gates, George Soros, Zuckerburg, Warren Buffet, etc, spending their billions on democrats.
3. YOU are a hypocrite

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1 reply
el21141 pmoore40 April 03 2014 at 11:35 AM

And you are an idiot….brainwashed by Fox and the other talking heads, Rush, Hannity and O'reily, who I will point out never served their country but instead choose to try to run it. Keep defending the court, in the end and maybe too late, you will see the damage done to this country!!

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lgnu April 03 2014 at 9:40 AM

Why don't they just get it over with and rule that only Republicans can vote. After all, if Corporations are people and money is speech just say Democrats are not people and cannot vote or contribute to political campaigns.

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1 reply
lgvxl42 lgnu April 03 2014 at 11:46 AM

..........There you go! That's the first intelligent thing I've heard today.

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pmoore40 April 03 2014 at 8:15 AM

Ah, you democrats are so scared of the Koch Brothers. Pitiful you. Meanwhile, they are 59th on the list of donors, with the majority of the top 58 being DEMOCRAT donors. And don't forget about the billionaires that donate MAJOR bucks to the democrat party - Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffet, just to name a few. And don't forget all those millions the unions spend to get democrats elected to office to do their bidding. Democrats = HYPOCRITES

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1 reply
el21141 pmoore40 April 03 2014 at 11:31 AM

Moore I realize your IQ is low, so let me help you. This decision by SCOTUS harms you and I regardless of your party affiliation. In the end the buck will determine what the folks with money want and what is good for them not you and I.

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ptaray April 02 2014 at 10:13 PM

Coming to a media outlet near you: Democracy, the selling off and undermining of.

while the "free market" believers determine the outcome? Yes the same ones that say that the corporations are people, and those corporate "people" have free speech thanks to the infection we call the conservative" justices". If justice is blind… why is it that we can see plainly that right wing "vision" gets favored help finding its way into the social structure, despite the actual nation or societies desire for the outcome? which rule of America do they uphold? the rule of our Constitution or the rule of their political party leaning media perceived god? they seem to be selling their souls for silver? but far more then thirty pieces I suppose.

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