WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's narrow decision Wednesday striking down a Watergate-era limit on the amount of money that wealthy donors can contribute to candidates and political committees was another victory for conservative justices who have whittled back a campaign finance regime that they feel violates free-speech rights.
The decision was the fifth since Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. joined the court that agreed with constitutional arguments challenging laws designed to blunt the influence of money in politics.
Again, liberals were on the losing end of a 5-4 decision, which held that First Amendment rights trump efforts by government to limit the sway of wealthy donors or special-interest groups.
"There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders," Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the court's majority opinion. "We have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others."
The liberal justices sharply disagreed, with Justice Stephen Breyer reading his dissent from the bench to emphasize that discord. The dissent said the ruling expands on a wrong-headed hostility to campaign finance laws that the court's conservatives showed in the landmark 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporate spending on elections.
"If Citizens United opened a door, today's decision, we fear, will open a floodgate," Justice Breyer said. He added that the ruling "overturns key precedent, creates serious loopholes in the law and undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform."
On its face, the ruling seems far more limited than Citizens United, which has dramatically increased spending on elections and spawned a new wave of political organizations funded by wealthy individuals.
But by making clear that government may restrict political contributions only to target quid pro quo corruption -- as opposed to "the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford" -- the dissenters and others said the court was inviting additional challenges to campaign finance restrictions.
The ruling "may represent the latest step in an effort by a majority of the court to dismantle entirely the long-standing structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-authored the 2002's Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act with then-Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas provided the crucial fifth vote for overturning the limits, but said the others should have gone further to strike down all contribution limits.
The court's decisions on campaign finance are one of the most dramatic examples of how the court moved when the conservative Justice Alito replaced more moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Justice O'Connor was in the majority that upheld the McCain-Feingold law. Justice Alito has swung the court to side with challengers to such laws. He has been in the majority as the court has eased restrictions on organizations that air ads that discuss candidates in the closing days of the election; struck down a part of the McCain-Feingold law that increased contribution limits for candidates who faced wealthy, self-funding opponents; and struck down Arizona's public finance system, which had a similar provision.
Most prominent has been the Citizens United decision, which was deeply unpopular, according to polls. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to acknowledge that in his ruling. "Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects," he wrote. "If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades -- despite the profound offense such spectacles cause -- it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition."
Wednesday's decision concerns a restriction that few Americans knew about, and fewer could afford to violate -- a limit on the total amount of money an individual can contribute in a two-year period to candidates and political committees. The limits capped at $48,600 the amount an individual could spend on contributions to candidates, plus $74,600 total on contributions to political parties and committees.
The court did not disturb the limit on how much an individual may contribute to a specific candidate, currently $2,600 per election. But Chief Justice Roberts said an individual should be able to contribute that amount to as many candidates as he chooses.
"An aggregate limit on how many candidates and committees an individual may support through contributions is not a modest restraint at all," the chief justice wrote. "The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse."
Republican Party officials cheered the opinion. The Republican National Committee brought the case along with Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon.
At the heart of the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case is the framework created by the court's seminal 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which upheld limits on campaign contributions that Congress put in place two years earlier, in response to the Watergate scandal.
That ruling drew a distinction between contributions, which the court said could be limited to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, and expenditures, which the court determined were a form of direct personal expression.
That decision led to the current lopsided campaign system, in which donors can give a federal candidate only $2,600 per election but can donate endless sums to big political action committees, or super-PACs, which must spend their money independently of candidates and parties.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Justice Breyer's dissent, which highlighted the court's fundamental dissension on the federal campaign finance regime's constitutionality.
"The First Amendment advances not only the individual's right to engage in political speech, but also the public's interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters," Justice Breyer wrote. "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. ... And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether."