Supreme Court lifts overall limits on congressional campaign donations

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday freed wealthy donors to give more money directly to congressional candidates, extending its controversial 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door for unlimited independent spending on political issues.

In a 5-4 decision, the court’s conservative majority struck down Watergate-era aggregate limits that barred political donors from giving more than $123,000 a year in total to candidates running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate.

The court said this limit violated the free-speech rights of the donors, and it was not needed to prevent “corruption” of the political process.


The justices noted that donors must still abide by rules that prevent them from giving more than $2,600 per election per candidate.

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Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, said the 1st Amendment protects a citizen’s free-speech right to give to candidates.

“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the 1st Amendment protects,” he said. If it protects “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, speaking for the four dissenters, said the court had opened a huge legal loophole that threatens the integrity of elections.

“Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” he said.

The Republican National Committee and an Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon had challenged the aggregate contribution limit as outdated and unnecessary.

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Obama administration lawyers defended the limit, arguing that without it wealthy donors would have undue sway on Capitol Hill if they could promise top party leaders that they would contribute $1 million or more per year to electing their candidates to Congress.

Wednesday’s decision is a follow-up to the Citizens United case. That 5-4 decision freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums independently on election campaigns.

david.savage@latimes.comTwitter: @davidgsavage