WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled Wednesday that limits on the total amount of money individuals can give to candidates, political parties and political action committees are unconstitutional.
The major ruling, which was hailed by Republican congressional leaders as a First Amendment victory, removes the cap on contributions, which was set at $123,200 for 2014. It does not change limits, though, on individual contributions for president or Congress, currently set at $2,600 per election.
Chief Justice John Roberts announced the decision, which split the court's liberal and conservative justices.
“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “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 opinion.”
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.
Others, though, described the ruling as a major blow to vital campaign finance rules.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the dissenting side, took the unusual step of reading a summary of his opinion from the bench and said the “decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws.”
Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, said Wednesday's decision "has seriously threatened our democracy by allowing ultra-rich individuals like Shaun McCutcheon and the Koch brothers to effectively buy as many members of Congress as their bank accounts allow."
“The Roberts Court has weakened America’s democracy and contributed to a system of legalized bribery by allowing big money to swamp the voices of regular Americans and dramatically alter the outcome of elections," she added in a written statement.
Congress enacted the limits in the wake of Watergate-era abuses to discourage big contributors from trying to buy votes with their donations and to restore public confidence in the campaign finance system.
But in a series of rulings in recent years, the Roberts court has struck down provisions of federal law aimed at limiting the influence of big donors as unconstitutional curbs on free speech rights.
Most notably, in 2010, the court split 5-4 in the Citizens United case to free corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they wish on campaign advocacy, as long as it is independent of candidates and their campaigns. That decision did not affect contribution limits to individual candidates, political parties and political action committees.
Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala., the national Republican Party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky challenged the overall limits on what contributors may give in a two-year federal election cycle. The total is $123,200, including a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates, for 2013 and 2014.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the decision in that case “an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse.”
Limits on individual contributions, currently $2,600 per election to candidates for Congress, are not at issue.
Relaxed campaign finance rules have reduced the influence of political parties, McConnell and the GOP argued.
McCutcheon gave the symbolically significant $1,776 to 15 candidates for Congress and wanted to give the same amount to 12 others. But doing so would have put him in violation of the cap.
Nearly 650 donors contributed the maximum amount to candidates, PACs and parties in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The court did not heed warnings from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and advocates of campaign finance limits that donors would be able to funnel large amounts of money to a favored candidate in the absence of the overall limit.
The Republicans also called on the court to abandon its practice over nearly 40 years of evaluating limits on contributions less skeptically than restrictions on spending.
The differing levels of scrutiny have allowed the court to uphold most contribution limits, because of the potential for corruption in large direct donations to candidates. At the same time, the court has found that independent spending does not pose the same risk of corruption and has applied a higher level of scrutiny to laws that seek to limit spending.
If the court were to drop the distinction between contributions and expenditures, even limits on contributions to individual candidates for Congress, currently $2,600 per election, would be threatened, said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of stringent campaign finance laws.
The case is McCutcheon v. FEC, 12-536.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.