The Supreme Court overturned decades-old limits on an individual’s overall campaign contributions in a landmark ruling Wednesday that could unleash a new torrent of money into the midterm elections.
In a splintered decision, five of the nine justices found that aggregate contribution limits — the maximum amount that a donor can give to federal candidates and political party committees throughout the course of a two-year election cycle — violate the Constitution’s protections for free speech.
Now set at just over $123,200, the limits were enacted by Congress in the early 1970s and upheld by the court’s 1976 decision in a case dubbed Buckley v. Valeo.
Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court overruled that decision, finding that aggregate limits do not pass constitutional muster.
“They instead intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise ‘the most fundamental First Amendment activities,’” Roberts wrote in the plurality opinion.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito joined Roberts in concluding the aggregate caps should be lifted, with Justice Clarence Thomas concurring in a separate opinion that goes even further.
Thomas argued that the court should overrule Buckley v. Valeo in its entirety and do away altogether with campaign contribution limits.
“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. “Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a ‘halfway house’ of our own design.”
The decision in the case, known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is the latest move to loosen campaign finance restrictions by the Roberts court following the landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010.
“The trend we’re seeing is chipping away slowly at campaign finance restrictions,” said Duke Law Professor Guy-Uriel Charles, a campaign finance expert.
Without the aggregate caps, an individual could contribute as much as $3.6 million in a single election cycle, said Justice Stephen Breyer, who penned the dissenting opinion.
Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, argued that the lifting the caps “understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions” and creates a loophole allowing those with the means to pour millions of dollars into campaigns.
“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 Federal Election Commission was reviewing the decision late Wednesday and had no immediate comment. The ruling could require the agency to draft new regulations.
While that could take months or more, experts said the decision was likely to have an immediate impact, because the previous regulations could no longer be enforced.
That means a potential new fundraising avenue for federal candidates in a pivotal election year when Democrats and Republicans are battling for control of the Senate.
“I think it will definitely have an impact on 2014,” said Dave Russell, senior policy adviser at the firm Bryan Cave LLP, who spent more than a decade working on Capitol Hill.
The ruling triggered dire warnings from proponents of strict campaign finance rules, who argue the explosion of campaign spending is a threat to democracy.
“This in itself is a small step, but another step on the road to ruination,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “It could lead to interpretations of the law that would result in the end of any fairness in the political system as we know it.”
But opponents of the contribution limits hailed the decision as a victory for free speech.
“The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a Constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case in support of the prevailing side.
McConnell pushed back against suggestions that the ruling would further marginalize average voters, or give outsize influence to the wealthy.
“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,” McConnell said. “It just respects the Constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support.”
Since the Citizens United decision, money has flowed to super-PACs and nonprofit groups that operate outside of the party system. Unlimited donations can be made to both types of groups, and in the case of the nonprofit world, without public disclosure about who’s giving.
Prior to Wednesday’s ruling donors faced a strict limit on what they could give to parties, political action committees and candidates over two years — with no more than $48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all PACs and parties.
Without the limits, parties are better positioned to compete with super-PACs.
For instance, a single donor could write a much bigger check to one joint fundraising committee that would then be divided up between scores of candidates.
Russell, however, predicted that contributors with millions of dollars to spend would likely continue to look to super-PACs, which could target competitive races with larger sums.
“Big donors want to move the needle, not just maxing out to a campaign for the sake of maxing out,” he said.
In its decision, the court acknowledged that Congress has certain powers to regulate money in politics.
But the prevailing opinion cites limits on the government’s authority.
“It may not, however, 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,” the justices concluded.
That argument — along with Thomas’s opinion calling for the Buckley decision to be fully overturned — could open the door to additional campaign finance cases before the high court.
Charles, the Duke law professor, said the court could entertain other questions about the limits of campaign contributions from corporations or individuals — or even the question of scrapping limits entirely.
“I don’t think we can say that’s off the table,” he said. “I think we have to be open to the possibility [the campaign finance issue] has legs beyond the aggregate limits.”
Updated at 8:26 p.m.