The Supreme Court continued its consistent and methodical deregulation of election spending by striking down aggregate limits on federal campaign contributions. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and very likely increase the already large role money plays in U.S. politics.
The 5-4 decision, with the court's more conservative members in the majority, echoed Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.
Wednesday's decision seemed to alter campaign finance law in subtle but important ways, notably by limiting the kinds of reasons the government can offer to justify laws said to restrict First Amendment rights in the context of campaign contributions.
The court's 88-page decision reflected sharply different visions of the meaning of the First Amendment and the role of government in regulating elections, with the majority deeply skeptical of government efforts to control participation in politics, and the minority saying that such oversight was needed to ensure a functioning democracy.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the overall limits could not survive First Amendment scrutiny. "There is no right in our democracy more basic," he wrote, "than the right to participate in electing our political leaders."
In a dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer called the majority opinion a disturbing development that raised the overall contribution ceiling to "the number infinity."
"If the court in Citizens United opened a door," he said, "today's decision may well open a floodgate."
Such oral dissents are rare, and they signal deep disagreements. But both Roberts and Breyer also noted from the bench that the other side's arguments were well presented.
Wednesday's decision did not affect familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.
In his written opinion, Breyer said Wednesday's decision would allow "a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign." He was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee. McCutcheon, who had contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle, said he had wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more but was stopped by the overall cap for individuals. The party committee said it wanted to receive contributions above the legal limit for political committees.
Congress enacted the contribution limits in the wake of Watergate-era abuses to discourage big donors from trying to buy legislative votes and to restore public confidence in the campaign finance system.