Supreme Court Strikes Down Combined Campaign Contribution Limits

A long-awaited decision comes down in a 5-4 split along ideological grounds.

WASHINGTON — Federal limits on the overall amount political donors can give to all federal candidates and committee, called aggregate limits, are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The five more conservative members of the court found the aggregate limits challenged by Shaun McCutcheon to be unconstitutional, while the four more liberal members would have upheld them.

In an opinion for four members of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

This case does not involve any challenge to the base limits, which we have previously upheld as serving the permissible objective of combatting corruption. The Government contends that the aggregate limits also serve that objective, by preventing circumvention of the base limits. We conclude, however, that the aggregate limits do little, if anything, to address that concern, while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process. The aggregate limits are therefore invalid under the First Amendment.

Justice Clarence Thomas would have gone further than Roberts, reversing the longstanding Supreme Court opinion allowing for regulation of campaign contributions, writing that the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo "denigrates core First Amendment speech and should be overruled."

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the dissenting justices, decrying the decision as "creat[ing] a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign."

He continued: "Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n, today's decision eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."

In making his argument, however, Roberts — writing for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito — based his opinion in a robust defense of the First Amendment, writing, "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."

The aggregate limits at issue in the case allow a donor to contribute a total of $48,600 to federal candidates and a total of $74,600 to other political committees, for a total of up to $123,200 to candidate and committees, in a given two-year election cycle.

The chief justice turned aside interest in "debating whether the line that Buckley drew between contributions and expenditures should remain the law." Among those arguing for the court to revisit that issue was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose lawyer argued in the case for the end to such a distinction.

"Notwithstanding the robust debate," Roberts wrote, "we see no need in this case to revisit Buckley's distinction between contributions and expenditures and the corollary distinction in the applicable standards of review.

Roberts wrote that the court had no need to do so because the aggregate limits failed even to meet the lower test the court had devised for deciding whether contribution limits were allowed. Because that standard requires the government show the limits are aimed at stopping "quid pro quo corruption," Roberts wrote, the aggregate limits are not constitutional because they "are not directed specifically to candidate behavior."