Supreme Court Strikes Down Limit On Overall Campaign Contributions


The Supreme Court ruled today that federal limits on overall campaign giving are unconstitutional. They didn’t address the issue of individual campaign contributions – for instance, you can still give only $2,600 to any single federal candidate during the general election period  – but caps on giving to multiple candidates are no more.

The Supreme Court struck down limits Wednesday in federal law on the overall campaign contributions the biggest individual donors may make to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

The justices said in a 5-4 vote that Americans have a right to give the legal maximum to candidates for Congress and president, as well as to parties and PACs, without worrying that they will violate the law when they bump up against a limit on all contributions, set at $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. That includes a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates.

But their decision does not undermine limits on individual contributions to candidates for president or Congress, now $2,600 an election.

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.

Here’s Roberts, writing in the opinion:

This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. Moreover, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. The line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights, and the Court must “err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.”

Justice Thomas writes in a concurring opinion that if we’re going to strike down aggregate contribution limits, we must also strike down individual contribution limits, as they are two sides of the same coin.

Under the plurality’s analysis, limiting the amount of money a person may give to a candidate does impose a direct restraint on his political communication; if it did not, the aggregate limits at issue here would not create “a special burden on broader participation in the democratic process.” I am wholly in agreement with the plurality’s conclusion on this point: “[T]he Government may not penalize an individual for ‘robustly exercis[ing]’ his First Amendment rights.” I regret only that the plurality does not acknowledge that today’s decision, although purporting not to overrule Buckley, continues to chip away at its footings.

In sum,what remains of Buckley is a rule without a rationale. Contributions and expenditures are simply “two sides of the same First Amendment coin,” and our efforts to distinguish the two have produced were “word games” rather than any cognizable principle of constitutional law.

That aggregate contribution limits have been struck down is a victory for free speech, and it’s hard to imagine how restrictions on individual contributions can stand. If aggregate contribution caps are an affront to free speech, how are individual caps not the same?

There’s little indication that these caps do anything to prevent corruption, and they certainly haven’t limited money in politics (if you believe that’s a good thing), so their only utility is to limit the amount of political speech in the form of campaign contributions individuals can engage in.

I say we allow people to do all the political spending they want to do, and just work on making it all transparent so that it’s easy to see who is giving what to which candidates and groups.

Disclose, don’t limit.