WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court took another step Wednesday toward giving wealthy donors more freedom to influence federal elections.
The justices ruled 5-4, in a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that limits on the total amount of money donors can give to all candidates, committees and political parties are unconstitutional. The decision leaves in place the base limits on what can be given to each individual campaign.
"The government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combating corruption and its appearance," Roberts wrote. "We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the government's efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them."
The decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which came nearly six months after it was argued at the beginning of the court's term in October, marks the latest round in the bitter national debate over the role of money in American politics.
More immediately, it alters the political landscape ahead of November's midterm elections and could transform state contests as well. Legal experts said the ruling also erodes aggregate contribution limits imposed by the District of Columbia and 12 states, ranging from Connecticut to Wyoming.
It's the most important campaign-finance ruling since the high court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts independently to influence elections.
The court's four liberal justices dissented vehemently from Roberts' ruling. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the minority, said the decision "understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions."
"Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today's 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," Breyer wrote.
The case pitted the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech – which the justices previously have equated with spending money in elections – against the government's interest in preventing political corruption. Roberts and the court's majority had little trouble siding with free speech.
"The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse," he wrote.
The decision was a victory for the Republican National Committee, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who challenged the $123,200 cap on contributions an individual can give to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees in a two-year election cycle.
McCutcheon's challenge did not extend to the $2,600 limit on how much a donor can give to a federal candidate in each primary and general election or the $32,400 limit that can go to a national party committee. Those limits, which guard against corruption, are at the root of the federal law.
In his ruling, Roberts reiterated the importance of those limits in protecting against political corruption.
"Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption," he said. "Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others."
Under the court's ruling, donors will have to stick to that $2,600 limit but can give to as many campaigns as they want without worrying about the previous $123,200 ceiling. The decision also could jeopardize separate contribution caps in at least a dozen states, from Arizona to Wyoming.
"While I understand some base limits on the dollar amount of single contributions, limits to the overall number of candidates, parties and committees are nothing more than unnecessary limits to First Amendment freedom," McCutcheon said in reaction to the ruling. "The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the unconstitutionality of aggregate limits."
McConnell, perhaps the nation's leading opponent of campaign finance limits, noted the ruling doesn't lift restrictions on the most corruptible contributions.
"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," he said. "It just respects the constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support."
The limits on campaign contributions had stood for nearly 40 years. The high court drew a distinction between those contributions, which it said could lead to corruption, and money spent independently in its landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling. Independent spending was expanded in the Citizens United case to include unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions.
While four of the court's conservative justices joined the Roberts ruling, the fifth, Justice Clarence Thomas, went even further and said he would have voted to strike down Buckley. Thomas said there should be no difference in the regulation of spending and contributions.
"This case represents yet another missed opportunity to right the course of our campaign finance jurisprudence by restoring a standard that is faithful to the First Amendment," Thomas wrote. He agreed only with Roberts' decision, not its rationale.
Defenders of government limits have warned that so-called "joint fundraising committees" now will be able to funnel up to $3.6 million from one donor to any vulnerable candidates.
"With its Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, the Supreme Court has turned our representative system of government into a sandbox for America's billionaires and millionaires to play in," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the public interest group Democracy 21. "The court's decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs."
But other campaign finance watchdogs took solace in the court's decision to leave intact limits that cap individual donations to $2,600 for a primary or general election. "The base limits do not appear to be under immediate challenge," Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, said.
Nearly 1.3 million people donated more than $200 to federal candidates, party committees and PACs last year, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Only about 600 hit the maximum donation limit to federal candidates in the 2012 elections, the center found.
McCutcheon and his allies also argued that lifting the cumulative cap on contributions might help candidates and national parties counter the rising influence of new "super PACs." Those entities, ushered in partly by Citizens United and a separate lower court decision in 2010, can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money independent of particular candidates.
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