In a stunning ruling sure to have a broad impact on American democracy in the 21st century, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the limits on the total amount of money individuals can spend on political candidates was a violation of free speech rights.
The 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, written by Chief Justice John Roberts and delivered on Tuesday, advances the conservative court’s opposition to campaign finance laws as demonstrated in its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case, which gave corporations the same rights as individuals to contribute liberally. Now, wealthy donors are free to give money to as many candidates, parties and political committees as they want.
“If Citizens United opened a door,” said Justice Stephen Breyer from the bench in his dissent, “today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.”
Prior to the decision, donors couldn’t give more than $123,200 during a two-year period to a congressional or presidential candidate. This ruling lets a donor spend up to $3.6 million in the same cycle, according to news reports.
Reaction on Long Island was swift.
“It’s bad for the people of the United States,” said Elizabeth Oldendorp, an LI regional organizer with MoveOn.Org, which was joining with other groups to set up 140 demonstrations around the country like the rally at the Nassau County Legislative Building on Tuesday.
“Today’s ruling permits a handful of the very wealthiest Americans to corrupt our democracy through massive campaign contributions. The ruling blatantly puts our democracy up for sale to the ultra-wealthy, leaving everyday citizens like you and me—who might give $20 or $40 to a candidate we support—without a voice.”
Republicans praised the ruling, in no small part, some observers say, because it allows them to pump more money into this year’s mid-term elections when Democrats traditionally stay home—while the Democrat in the White House potentially loses ground on Capitol Hill. Recent polls have predicted that the Republicans, who have a majority in the House of Representatives, might even be able to take over the U.S. Senate where the Democrats currently have an edge.
On Long Island, the McCutcheon decision could soon affect the Congressional race. In 2012, conservative super-PACS (political action campaigns) connected to GOP strategist Karl Rove poured in an estimated $4 million in a failed attempt to unseat Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southamtpon).
“Today’s court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is 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,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee—which brought the case with Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon—said in a statement.
“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts wrote in his majority decision. “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.”
Siding with Roberts were Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s swing voter. In the minority with Breyer were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
LI’s lone member of the GOP in Congress, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), approved of the ruling.
“I agree with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment,” the congressman told the Press in a statement.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a long-term advocate for campaign finance reform, said that he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling, as reported in The Washington Post. But he saw a silver lining. “I predict again, there will be major scandals in campaign finance contributions that will cause reform.”
Addressing the issue before the decision came down, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said: “The great political struggle we now face is whether the United States retains its democratic heritage or whether we move toward an oligarchic form of society where the real political power rests with a handful of billionaires, not ordinary Americans.”