In a vote that dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer said would “open a floodgate” of dollars to control American elections, the Supreme Court ruled today that aggregate limits on federal campaign contributions were unconstitutional.
The ruling — 5-4, along ideological lines — in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (No. 12-536) removes the cap individuals may give to federal candidates and political committees ($48,600 to candidates and $25,000 to committees) over two years. Along with McCutcheon, the individual who filed suit over the limits, the Republican National Committee was an appellant.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts leads off the opinion, which he penned for the majority, by writing, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
The New York Times report, which called the decision a sequel to the Citizens United case in which the court defined corporation as people for purposes of campaign contributions, notes that the decision
chipped away at the central distinction drawn by the Supreme Court in its seminal 1976 campaign finance decision, Buckley v. Valeo. Independent spending, the court said in Buckley, is political speech protected by the First Amendment. But contributions may be capped, the court said, in the name of preventing corruption. The court added that aggregate contribution limits were a “quite modest restraint upon protected political activity” that “serves to prevent evasion” of the base limits.
However, Roberts writes:
The Government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance. 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. 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. They instead intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise “the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”
Roll Call notes that while many Republicans are celebrating the decision, Sen. John McCain is not:
McCain, who co-authored that 2000 ban on unrestricted “soft” money donations to the parties, called the opinion “tragic.” Asked about the ruling, the Arizona Republican replied: “What can I say? I think it’s really the worst. I think it’s a terrible decision, but I’m not surprised given their decision in Citizens United.”