Supreme Court Strikes Down Overall Limits on Campaign Contributions

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A 29 October 2006 photo shows the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
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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.