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Supreme Court eases limits for big political donors

The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. on

The Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 2012. Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court further eroded campaign finance laws Wednesday, striking down the overall cap on individual contributions and freeing wealthy donors to give to as many candidates, parties and political action committees as they wish.

The 5-4 decision by the court's conservative majority is expected to open the spigot for a surge in political contributions by big donors as the parties battle for control of the House and Senate this year.

Scrapped by the ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission was the $123,200 cap on how much overall an individual can give to federal candidates and committees in the two-year election cycle.

Left intact were the limits on how much an individual can give to each candidate and committee, and the requirement that donor names be disclosed. Those limits are $2,600 per election to each candidate, $5,000 to each PAC, $10,000 to each state party and $32,400 to each national party.

But with the cap removed, a donor could contribute a total of $3.6 million by giving to all 468 of a party's candidates and committees, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer in his dissent.

The court majority's ruling extends the controversial 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited spending on independent political ads and gave rise to influential super PACs and nonprofits that hide donors' identities.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the First Amendment protects a donor's right to give to an unlimited number of candidates, and that a cap isn't needed to prevent corruption.

"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," he wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority but said he would have wiped out all limits on campaign contributions.

Speaking for the dissenters, Breyer wrote: "Taken together with Citizens United, today's decision eviscerates our nation's campaign finance laws."

He added from the bench, "If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today's decision may well open a floodgate."

Conservatives called the ruling a First Amendment victory. Groups for restricting money in politics said it created plutocrat rights.

The Republican National Committee and Alabama party activist Shaun McCutcheon filed the case. Most Democrats opposed it. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the ruling "another nail in the coffin of our free and fair election system."

He said the implications of the ruling are "huge," showing the court wants to scrap all campaign contribution limits, piece by piece.

New York and Long Island are home to political donors who will be affected.

The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics found 100 of the 644 individuals who gave up to the $117,000 cap in the 2012 election were from New York, and about 10 of them were from Long Island.

Schumer, who is the Rules Committee chairman, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said they will hold hearings on the ruling.

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