WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court struck down some limits Wednesday on campaign contributions, creating the potential for big donors to play an even greater role in U.S. congressional and presidential campaigns.
The narrowly divided court rejected a ceiling, now set at $123,200, on overall contributions to candidates, parties and political action committees over a two-year period. But the impact of this ruling is limited because it does not undermine restrictions on contributions to individual candidates, now set at $2,600 per candidate, per election.
Still, the ruling further erodes restrictions put in place to reduce the influence of big spenders on U.S. politics. It follows a major 2010 case that lifted limits on independent spending by corporations and unions. Under that ruling, big donors have been able to work around the restrictions by going outside the campaign regulatory system and spending an unlimited amount of money on attack ads.
The 5-4 ruling split the court's liberal and conservative justices. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, said the aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption, the rationale the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits. He said it intrudes on citizens' free-speech rights.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the liberal dissenters, said that the court's conservatives had "eviscerated our nation's campaign finance laws" through Wednesday's ruling and the 2010 decision, known as Citizens United.
"If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today's decision we fear will open a floodgate," Breyer said in comments from the bench. "It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institution."
Reaction to the ruling generally followed party lines, with advocates of capping money in politics aligned with Democrats in opposition to the decision.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the Obama administration is still reviewing the details of Wednesday's decision. But he noted that the solicitor general, which argues the administration's positions before the court, had defended the constitutionality of the previous limits.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the Supreme Court 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."
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said, "This in itself is a small step, but another step on the road to ruination. It could lead to interpretations of the law that would result in the end of any fairness in the political system as we know it."
Congress enacted the limits in the wake of the 1970s Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. They were intended 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,the Citizens United case freed 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.