Supreme Court strikes down limits on federal campaign contribution

Natalie Sullivan

A new Supreme Court decision that overturned restrictions on campaign contribution limits could increase wealthy donors’ abilities to influence elections, according to law professor Lucas Powe.

In a 5-4 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that federal limits on the number of candidates and political committees a person could donate to in an election cycle were in violation of rights protected by the First Amendment. In the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled that current aggregate limits, or the amount of money an individual can give to committees and candidates in a two-year period, also posed an unconstitutional burden. 

“The basic idea is that Congress can’t regulate the total amount a person can give to lots of different candidates,” law assistant professor Joseph Fishkin said.

Powe said while the ruling might lead to more transparency in the political system, it could also give wealthy, upper-class donors more ability to influence candidates.

“We might see a little more transparency because contributions to a candidate have to be reported, so contributions to super PACs might be more transparent,” Powe said. “We’ll also probably see much more big money because it gives the wealthy more control of the system. The Republicans are probably dancing in the streets right now.”

The decision still limits the total amount of money a donor can give to any one candidate to $2,600.

“A donor can now give a maximum contribution of $2,600 to as many individuals as he wishes,” Powe said. “So with 33 Senate races and 435 House races, he can now give $2,600 to each and every candidate in that race.” 

Under the previous laws, donors could only give to 18 candidates per election cycle, for a total donation limit of $123,200. 

In his decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said he had no problem removing some donation limits because he felt most campaign contributions were not made to unfairly influence candidates.

“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 such quid pro quo corruption,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the decision was based on the fact that aggregate limits infringed on donors’ First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

“The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Roberts said.

Powe said he was concerned about how the new ruling might affect other campaign finance laws. 

“[The Supreme Court] didn’t strike down all campaign finance legislation, but they’re certainly poised to do so,” Powe said. “This is just the beginning. It has the seeds of knocking everything else out.”

The ruling will formally go into effect in 25 days.