Supreme Court rules campaign contribution caps unconstitutional

Campaign finance laws are thought to reduce corruption and give a more even playing field to candidates who won't be swayed by big donors and corporations.

Aileen Graef

The Supreme Court Wednesday made one of their most significant campaign finance decisions by declaring caps on campaign contributions unconstitutional in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

In the 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court justices removed the contribution limits and said individuals should be able to give the maximum per-candidate and per-party contributions to as many party committees, presidential and congressional candidates as they desire. Under current campaign finance laws, individuals can donate no more than $123,000 in total contributions and $48,600 to candidates for the 2013-2014 election cycle. The court did not, however, eliminate the $5,200 limit on how much an individual can give to a single candidate.


Chief Justice John Roberts read the ruling as he was joined in his decision by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy:

"The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. 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."

RELATED Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case battle lines drawn on Obamacare outline

The court also said in its decision that the freedom of people to endorse political candidates through monetary contribution is similar to the freedom the press has to endorse multiple candidates.

"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. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a 'modest Restraint' on those rights. 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."

The four justices in dissent were Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonya Sotomayor. Breyer says the majority ruling will create "huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform."

RELATED 9 years after SCOTUS' Kelo ruling, houses seized under eminent domain remain undeveloped

Most Republicans praised the court for their decision for what they say is allowing Americans to have greater voice in the democratic process through monetary endorsement of political candidates.

"What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld," said Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio. "You all have the freedom to write what you want to write. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give."


Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has made significant efforts to put a leash on campaign finance through his McCain-Feingold law, has received much heat from his own party on his stance. With that law now gutted by the court's decision, McCain said of the ruling: "I was deeply disappointed, but it is what it is. I predict again, there will be major scandals in campaign finance contributions that will cause reform."

RELATED Supreme Court ruling in land case could be trouble for public trails

The decision in this case could increase overall spending, but it could also redirect money from super PACs to candidates and parties in a year where parties are racing to raise cash for the midterm elections.

[U.S. Supreme Court] [Washington Post] [CNN] [New York Times]

RELATED Supreme Court rules for whistleblowers in challenge to Sarbanes-Oxley

RELATED Hobby Lobby win in Supreme Court could lead to more 'religious liberty' laws

RELATED SCOTUS likely to strike down inmate IQ score cutoff

Latest Headlines