In a divided decision, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down campaign contribution caps, paving the way for big-money donors to contribute unlimited amounts, in the aggregate, to federal candidates and political committees.
The decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission involved only how much money an individual could contribute in the aggregate during a two-year election cycle. It did not address so-called “base limits,” or the maximum amount an individual can contribute to any one candidate or committee. Those limits remain, but now the “aggregate limits” – the amount an individual donor can give in total during the election cycle – are gone. Those limits had been $48,600 for all candidates, combined, during the two-year period, and $74,600 to political parties and committees, combined. A majority of the Court found that those limits violated the First Amendment.
Justice Breyer wrote in the dissent, joined by Justice Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, that the Court’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.”
In striking down the aggregate contribution caps, the Court, relying on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, found that seeking to use money – through campaign contributions – in order to gain influence and access to candidates and elected officials, is not “corruption” but is a part of free speech that is “central to our democracy.”
The dissent, however, found that Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the plurality of the Court, defined “corruption” too narrowly. “In reality,” Justice Breyer noted, “as the history of campaign finance reform shows and as our earlier cases on the subject have recognized, the anticorruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest than the plurality acknowledges. It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions. And it is an interest rooted in the Constitution and in the First Amendment itself.”
In short, as Justice Breyer pointed out: “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”
Media Resources: US Supreme Court 4/2/14; New York Times, 4/2/14; SCOTUS Blog, 4/2/14