The United States Supreme Court has struck down the cap placed on political donations. Today’s ruling, split along ideological lines, is the next step of the abolition of financial limits placed on donors for election spending, striking down a decades-old cap on individual contributions to candidates during a two-year election cycle. Considering ruling was delivered near the beginning of campaign season, it will undoubtedly increase the already major role money plays in politics.
The 5-4 ruling was brought forth from the Supreme Court’s conservative block, which was similar to the voting spread in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). The ruling four years ago struck down limits placed on corporations and unions for spending towards political campaigns. Although the Court’s decision amends campaign finance law, most importantly, it limits the way in which the government can justify laws that restrict First Amendment free speech rights regarding campaign contributions.
The final written brief emanates the majority’s distrustfulness of the government’s efforts to regulate political participation. Whereas the liberal minority stated that government oversight is necessary safeguard effective democracy.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, explained in his brief that limits on political spending cannot pass the test of strict scrutiny regarding First Amendment cases. “There is no right more basic than the right to participate in the electing our political leaders,” he stated. Justice Roberts was joined in the majority by Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy.
Although the First Amendment protects actions that may seem repugnant to some Americans, such as flag burning and protesting at funerals, it wholeheartedly protects, notwithstanding profound transgressions, the right to political campaign speech despite popular opinion.
Oral dissents from the bench are few and far in between; however, Justice Stephen Breyer, of the minority, insisted that the deregulation of campaign spending raises the ceiling for political contributions to “the number infinity”. He also explained that the decision was too narrow to see the entire picture of campaign finance law. Breyer fervently stated that the removal of the cap on political contributions has the ability to muffle the voice of the people with money.
The decision did not affect the general limits on contributions from individuals to specific candidates, currently set at $2,600 per candidate in both primary and general elections. However, the decision explains the overall limit of $48,600 every two years of donations from individuals to an aggregate of federal candidates violated the First Amendment. Furthermore, the collective limits on donations to political action committees (PACs) is still limited to $74,600.
Joined by Justices, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Breyer stated that the decision will allow, “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”
The decades-long battle over campaign finance law began with the decision brought forth in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) in the wake of the Watergate affair, with Justice Warren Burger writing for the Court. While individual spending is political speech protected by the First Amendment, as the Court stated, contributions can be limited to prevent corruption. Chief Justice Roberts explained that the jurisprudence created by the Buckley ruling remains, regardless of the Supreme Court’s currently ruling. Moreover, he added, “we see no need to revisit Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures”.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling demolished the sense of a “leveling the playing field” on the nation’s political stage. Although purveyors of campaign finance law have a vested interest of anticorruption, it was clear that it only hindered the essential rights Americans are given in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Since the 2012 presidential election had, in the aggregate, nearly two billion dollars in contributions, one can only speculate that the next election cycle could net far, far more.
By: Alex Lemieux