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Supreme Court Strikes Down Limits On Campaign Spending

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In a decision that all but ensures a greater role for wealthy donors in American politics, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down restrictions on how much individual donors may contribute to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

The justices, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that aggregate limits for individuals on campaign contributions violate the First Amendment. The limits were introduced following the Watergate scandal to restore public confidence in the campaign finance system. In his majority opinion, however, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that such restrictions “intrude without justification” on an individual’s right to exercise free speech.

Watch Big Sky, Big Money, FRONTLINE’s examination of how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has affected American politics.

“If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacle causes — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition,” wrote Roberts.

The decision in the case — McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission — effectively erases the $48,600 limit that individuals may donate in total to candidates for federal office, as well as the $74,600 limit on contributions to political party committees. The decision leaves in place the $2,600 cap that an individual can give to any single candidate for Congress or the presidency. Yet even with that cap, individuals will now be free to spend as much as $3.7 million per election cycle, according to an estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics, up from the previous limit of $123,200.

Advocates for campaign finance reform were quick to denounce the ruling and tie it to a string of politically charged decisions from the Roberts court to reshape the nation’s voting and election laws. In the 2010 Citizens United case, the court freed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums on campaigns, so long as that money went to independent issue advocacy organizations, rather than direct to candidates.

Last June, the court reversed a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to clear changes in election law with the federal government in Shelby County v. Holder.

“It’s very troubling that with today’s ruling in McCutcheon, and Citizens United, coupled with the Roberts court’s ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act, the court has made it much easier to spend money in an election and much harder to actually cast a vote in a fair election,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center.

The case was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman who during the 2012 election cycle doled out $1,776 a piece to a group of 15 candidates who were challenging incumbents. McCutcheon said he hoped to donate to an additional 12 challengers, but doing so would have put him in violation of the cap. He was joined in his case by the Republican National Committee, and represented by James Bopp Jr., the intellectual architect behind Citizens United.

At issue was the precedent set in the Supreme Court’s 1976 campaign finance decision, Buckley v. Valeo. In that case, the court ruled that although independent spending is indeed a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment, individual contributions may be capped in order to help prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.

One area where the ruling may have the most impact is in the size and influence of so-called joint fundraising committees. As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post explains:

These organizations allow a donor to write a single check that is then split up between a handful of candidates/committees. So, if you wrote a $50,000 check, for example, the first $32,400 would go to the national party committee (that’s the current federal donation limit for a single year) and the remaining $17,600 would be parceled out in $2,600 increments to candidates. Prior to the McCutcheon ruling, an individual could give only $123,200 in a single election cycle: $48,600 to candidates (which breaks down to 18 “max out” candidate donations) and $74,600 to federal party committees. That limit is now gone. “An individual may now make as many ‘max out’ contributions to candidates in an election cycle, and to parties and PACs in a calendar year, as he or she wishes,” according to a summary of the opinion from the political law wing of Perkins Coie. The joint fundraising committee will almost certainly be the preferred vehicle that candidates and party committees set up to collect — and disburse — big checks from wealthy individuals.

Defenders of spending limits fear the ruling may set the stage for a ban on contribution limits altogether. That was the position taken by Justice Clarence Thomas, who sided with the majority but wrote separately to say he would have scrapped such limits.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissent for the court’s liberal wing, and in a rare move read his opinion from the bench to underscore his disagreement.

“The re­sult, Breyer wrote, “… is a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”

A view of the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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