A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down decades-old limits on the total money donors can give to federal candidates and parties, ruling in its biggest campaign-finance case since the 2010 Citizens United decision.
Voting 5-4 along ideological lines, the court today said the caps violated the speech rights of Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama Republican official seeking to give candidates, parties and political committees more than the $123,200 maximum. The court stopped short of undercutting a 1976 ruling that allows caps on contributions to individual candidates.
This ruling does not change the rules which limit what an individual can spend on one particular candidate, only the rules limiting what people can spend in total.
Chief Justice John Roberts announced the decision, which split the court’s liberal and conservative justices. Roberts said the aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption, the rationale the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits.
The overall limits “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise ‘the most fundamental First Amendment activities,'” Roberts said, quoting from the court’s seminal 1976 campaign finance ruling in Buckley v. Valeo.
Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome of the case, but wrote separately to say that he would have gone further and wiped away all contribution limits.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the liberal dissenters, took the unusual step of reading a summary of his opinion from the bench.
From Robert’s decision (bold is mine)
There is no right more basic in our democracy than theright to participate in electing our political leaders. Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways: They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for aparticular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign, and contribute to a candidate’s campaign. This case is about the last of those options.
The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1, 26–27 (1976) (per curiam). At the same time, we have made clear that Congress may not 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. See, e.g., Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 564 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 24–25).
Many people might find those latter objectives attractive: They would be delighted to see fewer television commercials touting a candidate’s accomplishments or disparaging an opponent’s character. Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.