Supreme Court Strikes Down Overall Limits on Campaign Contributions

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

A 29 October 2006 photo shows the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty)

In a 5-4 decision issued Wednesday in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down overall limits on campaign contributions, ruling that caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties are unconstitutional.

The justices ruled that total limits of $48,600 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.

The Court found that Americans have a right to contribute the legal maximum to those running for Congress and president, as well as to political parties and PACs. Under the grounds that they violated the First Amendment, the ruling now overturns aggregate limits.

"The government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance," Chief Justice John 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 now frees the nation's wealthiest donors to have greater influence in federal elections.

Jeffrey Rosen is a professor of law at George Washington University and President of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He joins The Takeaway to explains what this ruling is about and what it could mean for all of us.

"Basically, these [limits] have been in place since 1974, they were upheld by the Supreme Court in its seminal decision, Buckley v. Valeo in 1976," says Rosen. "But the 5 to 4 majority struck down these aggregate limits today on the grounds that they don't further the only government interest the Court accepted as legitimate in Buckley, according to Chief Justice Roberts, and that was mainly 'quid pro quo corruption.'"

Rosen says that today the majority ruled that in the 1976 case, the Supreme Court defined corruption very narrowly as money for votes, something not all on the bench agreed with in today's decision.

"The dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer in a fiery and passionate dissent which he read from the bench, said that the Court had changed the definition of corruption and effectively overruled Buckley," Rosen says. "[Justice] Breyer said that ever since Buckley, the Court had recognized broader kinds of corruption and the idea that candidates would be more responsive to big donors even if they weren't directly being paid for votes. By narrowing the definition of corruption, [Justice] Breyer said, the Court had really fundamentally transformed campaign finance law and made any kind of regulation much more difficult."

Rosen says there are other strong First Amendment arguments against aggregate limits, adding that they are supported not only by libertarian conservatives by some civil libertarian liberals who care strongly about the First Amendment.

"But Justice Breyer said there are also First Amendment interests on the other side—that the First Amendment requires a democracy where a few rich individuals can't drown out everyone else," says Rosen. "He was being much more pragmatic."

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer said one of the dangers this ruling could present would come during the last few days before an election—the Justice said unlimited amounts of money could flow in at the last possible second to possibly influence election results.

"Breyer cares very deeply about this issue as a pragmatist and someone who's written a book about active liberty and how democracy requires participation," says Rosen. "He said the founders had a broader vision of corruption than Chief Justice Roberts did in insisting that individual citizens could find their representatives to be responsive to them. Breyer said that when a handful of wealthy individuals can flood the market with these huge checks, that is the kind of corruption that stops citizen responsiveness that the founders wanted to present."

Listen to the full interview above to hear more analysis from Rosen.




Jeffrey Rosen


T.J. Raphael

Comments [8]

marty sanchez

Very bad call.

Apr. 03 2014 07:13 PM
Pamela from New York

The snowball of corporate ownership of America has become so large that it has become the fearful norm. Americans just get out of its way trying not to get flattened as it rolls through town. It is so big, in fact, that the only thing that can stop it is either crashing into something bigger or rolling off a steep cliff. There is such a sense of hopelessness that each voter's voice will not be heard that people stop voting, ever-increasingly leaving the field open to gerrymandering, bribing the populace and abuse of power through money.
And that is, of course, what this decision is all about, making sure that the guy dancing on the table shouting, singing, drunkenly blowing a horn and stomping on the food will drown out all conversation at the party. If it is truly about the 1st Amendment then 1 person 1 vote should be enough without ridiculous financing from people who will expect great 'favors' when the election is done and their side has won.

Apr. 03 2014 08:35 AM
Paul Taslimi

Welcome to chapter one of American Plutocracy. Corporate governance is on its merry way. Unshackled by the A-team sitting on the supreme judicial court. The presidency goes to the highest bidder. For a complete listing of candidates please refer to Forbes. I think it will cost roughly 2-4 billion next time so that narrows the list down to 20-30. Here is the link
Fun times folks!!

Apr. 02 2014 09:59 PM
Nick from UWS

The US Supreme Court....bought and paid-for marionettes of corporate America. Gladly sold our Democracy off to whomever could afford them. They are beyond disgusting, they are traitors.

Apr. 02 2014 06:14 PM
temarisa from Long Island

Just goes to prove we have the best system money can buy

Apr. 02 2014 04:17 PM
Dean Sutton

BEST TV CHARACTER: I vote for ARCHIE BUNKER... nobody better!
I tried to find the place to vote on your webiste, but the right, gray side is all gibberish and there is no other place to comment...
The radio guy said to vote a the website but there is no other place to do so.

Dean Sutton

Apr. 02 2014 04:02 PM
bryan from Michigan

This decision validates the "Sheldon Adelson primary", in which one person, representative of none of us, can command the appearance, attention and fealty of all of the presidential candidates.

We now have to seek out the "benevolent class" among the very wealthy and beg them to advocate on our side. This "one dollar, one vote" principle does seem to fly in the face of all common sense.

Apr. 02 2014 01:07 PM

Preprocessors understood the necessity of avoiding the influence of money, and individuals' tyrannical behavior, but now these Conservative judges have open up the crazy possibility of the rich-white-male-good-ole'-boys displacing the majority, and collective intelligence, with their money and self-important view.

Apr. 02 2014 01:02 PM

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