A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down the aggregate limit on individual political donations Wednesday, allowing donors to give the maximum contribution to as many candidates and political parties as they like. The ruling affects about 650 donors, the number who maxed out their aggregate federal contributions in the last election cycle.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the 5-4 court, the majority made up of the conservatives and swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy. Roberts wrote that the aggregate limit violated the First Amendment, and said striking the ban would not corrupt the democratic process because the cap on giving to individual candidates remains. In other words, a donor can still give only a limited amount—$2,600—to each candidate per election but now can give to as many candidates as he likes. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., in the oral arguments in October, argued that without the limits, “Less than 500 people can fund the whole shooting match.”
“Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Roberts wrote in the opinion. “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 case was a kind of sequel to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, testing whether the court thought that major campaign finance ruling had gone too far, or not far enough. The answer was the latter, not much of a surprise from a court that has routinely overturned campaign finance restrictions.
In Citizens United, the court removed restrictions on outside groups’ spending on political campaigns. This case concerned restrictions on individuals giving directly to candidates. The ruling could put candidates and political parties on more equal footing with the newly powerful outside groups.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a white-hot dissent on behalf of the four liberal justices. “Taken together with Citizens United v. FEC, 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 took the unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench.
Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon brought the case with the Republican National Committee against the Federal Election Commission after he gave the maximum to 16 federal candidates. He wanted to give to 12 additional candidates.
“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some,” wrote Roberts in his opinion. “But so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”