Chief Justice John Roberts and four other justices have ruled in the McCutcheon campaign financing case, with the majority striking down general limits on how much money can be spent on political campaigns over a two-year period.
Specific limits remain in effect for how much a donor can spend on each candidate, but the only overall financial limit is the number of possible campaigns and candidates that can receive funds.
In 2010, the Court delivered its controversial 5-4 decision in Citizens United, which set the stage for enormous sums of money to be spent in elections through super PACs and other independent entities.
The McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case was seen the sequel to Citizens United, with the potential to pour millions of dollars into United States elections, directly into the campaigns of candidates for elected office, or to groups supporting them.
At issue in the McCutcheon case was the amount of money a person can cumulatively contribute to all candidates for federal office and to party committees over the course of a two-year election cycle. These limits stood at $48,600 per cycle for candidate committees and $74,600 for contributions to party committees, for a total of $123,200.
These limits have existed since 1974, and they were upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1976 campaign finance case Buckley v. Valeo.
“For the reasons set forth, we conclude that the aggregate limits on contributions do not further the only governmental interest this Court accepted as legitimate in Buckley,” Roberts said. “They instead intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise “the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”
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The Buckley case established a distinction between contributions to campaigns and spending by campaigns. In its aftermath, Congress could regulate contributions to campaigns to prevent corruption, while expenditures, posing no corruption threat, couldn’t be regulated.
The McCutcheon decision doesn’t extend the $2,600 limit a donor can give to a federal candidate in each primary and a general election or the $32,400 limit that can go to a national party committee. Those issues about “base limits” weren’t contested in court because of concerns about quid pro quo corruption that are part of the federal law.
Under Justice Roberts’ ruling, campaign donors must obey the $2,600 limit, but they can give to as many campaigns as they want without worrying about a ceiling on the number of donations they make.
It was expected before the McCutcheon decision that if the aggregate limits fell, individuals would potentially be able to contribute as much as $3.6 million in a single election cycle by contributing the maximum amount under the base limits law to party committees and slates of Congressional candidates.
In defending the law, the Obama administration and the Federal Election Commission maintained that the aggregate limitations are an important tool to prevent corruption and its appearance in the political world by preventing donors from circumventing the base limits on contributions given directly to candidates.
But Justice Roberts and the four conservative justices disagreed, saying that aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.
“Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption,” Roberts said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, speaking from the bench for the four liberal dissenters, said the Court had threatened the integrity of the election process elections.
“Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” he said.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.