Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Political Donation Limits

April 2, 2014       Patrick Sullivan      

The U.S. Supreme Court today lifted the cap on individuals’ donations to political candidates, parties and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. The 5-4 decision along ideological lines in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee removes the aggregate cap of $123,200.

Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon challenged the $48,600 limit on contributions to candidates in a two-year election cycle and the $74,600 limit to political parties and political action committees (PACs). Both were struck down in the decision. The ruling preserves the $2,600 cap to candidates in primary and general elections. This means donors can only contribute $2,600 to any one candidate, but can give to as many candidates, parties or PACs as they want without running up against the aggregate $123,200 cap.

“Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority decision. “A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a ‘modest restraint’ on those rights.”

Joining Roberts were Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas also voted to remove the cap but believes the entire ruling on which the cap was based, Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, should be struck down. “I would overrule Buckley and subject the aggregate limits in BCRA (The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) to strict scrutiny, which they would surely fail,” wrote Thomas in a concurring opinion. “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.”

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the dissent: “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.” Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Breyer in dissenting.

Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon challenged the $48,600 limit on contributions to candidates in a two-year election cycle and the $74,600 limit to political parties and PACs. Both were struck down in the decision. The ruling preserves the $2,600 cap to candidates in primary and general elections. This means donors can only contribute $2,600 to any one candidate, but can give to as many candidates, parties or PACs as they want without running up against the aggregate $123,200 cap.

McCutcheon said in a statement that the ruling “took a stand” in favor of the First Amendment right to free speech. “With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots – a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out,” he said.

This ruling furthers the erosion of political contribution limits that began with the 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and labor unions could make unlimited independent political contributions. “You can’t separate the speech from the money that facilitates the speech,” Scalia told CNN’s Piers Morgan during a 2012 interview.

The nonprofit sector was abuzz with reactions Wednesday morning, with many decrying the decision. “Today’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is Citizens United round two, further opening the floodgates for the nation’s wealthiest few to drown out the voices of the rest of us,” said Miles Rapoport, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Common Cause, in a statement. “The Court has reversed nearly 40 years of its own precedents, laid out a welcome mat for corruption, and turned its back on the lessons learned from the Watergate Scandal.”

The Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C., released a statement: “Once again, the Supreme Court has given more power to special interests and a tiny percentage of the very rich. Its Citizens United ruling four years ago opened up the floodgates for unlimited spending in our elections, and now it might as well have tied a big bow around Congress and deliver it to the 1%… What this court fails to recognize is the First Amendment rights of the 99.9% of citizens who cannot buy access to elected officials in order to give voice to their issues.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Sierra Club said in a statement that the ruling “fundamentally contradicts the values that sustain our democracy and undermines the notion that our government functions of, by, and for the people.” Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C., released a statement signed by representatives from 35 organizations, including the Sierra Club: “The Supreme Court has once again sided with the wealthy and powerful and against the vast majority of Americans. Today’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision makes it more important than ever that Congress move forward on legislation to lift up the voices of those unable to write big campaign checks”

Not all nonprofits were critical of the decision. “While the court’s ruling did not strike down the base donation limits, it is a step in the right direction to removing restrictions on campaign donations that strike at the heart of First Amendment protections of political speech,” wrote Nathan Mehrens, president of Americans for Limited Government in Fairfax, Va. “(A)ggregate limits most certainly restrict how much speech occurs in federal election campaigns and thus cannot be squared with First Amendment protections.”