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Supreme Court voids overall contribution limits to political candidates

| Wednesday, April 2, 2014, 10:24 a.m.
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The U.S. Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas poses for an official photograph with the other Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, in this September 29, 2009 file photo. For the first time in nearly seven years, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday spoke to a lawyer presenting a case during oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS LAW)

Citing a right to participate in democracy, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down limits in federal law on aggregate campaign contributions that individual donors can give candidates, political parties and political action committees.

In a 5-4 vote splitting conservatives and liberals, the justices said Americans have a right to give the legal maximum to candidates for Congress and president, and to parties and PACs, without worrying they might violate the limit on all contributions, set at $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. That includes a $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the limits violated the First Amendment. In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court's conservatives “eviscerated our nation's campaign finance laws” with this ruling and a 2010 decision in Citizens United that lifted limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions.

The decision means wealthy contributors could pour millions of dollars into campaigns, though their contributions are subject to disclosure under law.

The court did not undermine limits on individual contributions to candidates for president or Congress, now $2,600 an election.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the decision “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.”

The RNC joined Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to challenge the Federal Election Commission's limits on what contributors can give in a two-year election cycle.

Steve McMahon, a Washington-based Democratic strategist and founding partner of Purple Strategies, said the potential impact on campaigns is no different from covert payments the late Florida businessman Bebe Rebozo reportedly accepted on behalf of former President Richard Nixon.

“Except now, the slush funds won't be in a bag. The slush funds will come in envelopes, containing personal checks that may be reported but whose influence can never be measured,” McMahon said.

McConnell vehemently disagreed with critics of the decision: “It does not permit one more dime to be given to an individual candidate or a party — it just respects the constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support.”

Roberts said aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption, the rationale the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits.

The 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 that he would have gone further and ended all contribution limits.

In comments from the bench, Breyer said the decision could “open a floodgate.”

“It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institution,” he said. “It creates, we think, a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign.”

It's difficult to predict how the decision might affect this year's elections, said Bert Rockman, a political science professor at Purdue University.

“We have all kinds of political groups that are masquerading as social welfare tax-exempt organizations and are throwing money around on behalf of ideological causes — and without accountability,” Rockman said.

Congress enacted limits after Watergate-era abuses to restore public confidence in the campaign finance system and discourage big contributors from trying to buy votes.

The Roberts court in recent years struck down provisions of federal law aimed at limiting the influence of big donors as unconstitutional curbs on free-speech rights.

In Citizens United, the court divided 5-4 to enable corporations and labor unions to spend what they wish on campaign advocacy, if it is independent of candidates and their campaigns.

Relaxed campaign finance rules have reduced the influence of political parties, McConnell and the GOP argued.

McCutcheon gave a symbolic $1,776 to 15 candidates for Congress. He wanted to give 12 others the same amount but would have violated 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.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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