Share story

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday continued its methodical deregulation of election spending by striking down aggregate limits on federal campaign contributions. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and likely increase the already large role money plays in U.S. politics.

The 5-4 decision, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority, echoed Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

Wednesday’s decision seemed to alter campaign-finance law in subtle but important ways, notably by limiting the kinds of reasons the government can offer to justify laws said to restrict First Amendment rights in the context of campaign contributions.

The court’s decision reflected sharply different visions of the meaning of the First Amendment and the role of government in regulating elections, with the majority deeply skeptical of government efforts to control participation in politics, and the minority saying that such oversight was needed to ensure a functioning democracy.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the overall limits could not survive First Amendment scrutiny.

“There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” he wrote.

Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.

In a dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer called the majority opinion a disturbing development that raised the overall contribution ceiling to “the number infinity.”

“If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”

Such oral dissents are rare, and they signal deep disagreements.

Wednesday’s decision did not affect familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

That means a wealthy individual could start contributing more than $3.5 million to party committees and candidates over two years.

In his written opinion, Breyer said Wednesday’s decision would allow “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.” He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee. McCutcheon, who had contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle, said he had wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more but was stopped by the overall cap for individuals. The party committee said it wanted to receive contributions above the legal limit for political committees.

Roberts said the core purpose of the First Amendment was to protect political speech from government interference, even if many people might welcome it.

“They would be delighted to see fewer television commercials touting a candidate’s accomplishments or disparaging an opponent’s character,” the chief justice wrote. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so, too, does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

The decision chipped away at the central distinction drawn by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo, its seminal 1976 campaign-finance decision.

Independent spending, the court said in Buckley, is political speech protected by the First Amendment. But contributions may be capped, the court said then, in the name of preventing corruption. The court added in passing that aggregate contribution limits were a “quite modest restraint upon protected political activity” that “serves to prevent evasion” of the base limits.

Roberts said that brief passage on overall limits had to be reconsidered in light of later regulatory developments and other factors. But he added that the Buckley decision’s general structure remained intact.

“We see no need,” he said, “to revisit Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures.”

The chief justice said that while the $2,600 base limits were also intact, the overall caps placed an unacceptable burden on “an individual’s right to participate in the public debate through political expression and political association.”

“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.

Leveling the playing field is not an acceptable interest for the government, Roberts said.

Breyer said that analysis was much too narrow. “The anti-corruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest than the plurality acknowledges,” he wrote. “It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions.”

“Where enough money calls the tune,” he wrote, “the general public will not be heard.”

Wednesday’s decision concerned only contributions from individuals. Federal law continues to ban direct contributions by corporations and unions, though they remain free to spend unlimited sums through super PACs and similar vehicles.

The Roberts court has been consistently hostile to campaign-finance limits. In a half-dozen earlier cases, the five more conservative justices have all voted together, though Roberts and Alito have sometimes taken a more incremental approach than the bolder one called for by Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas.

Roberts’ decision is likely to increase overall campaign spending, but it may also rechannel some of it away from super PACs and toward candidates and parties.

The ruling most empowers two groups of people: those with the wherewithal to spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions, and those with access to them, including party leaders, senior lawmakers and presidents.

Each party’s establishment and the Republican and Democratic National Committees in particular have seen their clout and influence steadily erode in the decade since Congress passed legislation banning parties from collecting unlimited contributions, known as soft money, from big donors.

But campaign experts said the decision would pave the way for party leaders, such as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio or the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to form joint fundraising committees and solicit multimillion-dollar checks on behalf of their party’s candidates.

“The Supreme Court has re-established the dangerous corrupting nexus between large contributions from influence-seeking donors and federal office holders soliciting these contributions,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21.

The high-court ruling won’t affect races governed by Washington state law, according to a spokeswoman for the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

Washington doesn’t have any cap on how much overall each donor can give to candidates or political groups involved in state races, such as for governor or the Legislature. “We don’t have anything like that,” said Lori Anderson, a PDC spokeswoman. Washington state’s individual limits will stay in place — $1,900 per election (primary and general) for statewide candidates, $950 for legislative candidates.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.