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The U.S. Supreme Court has once again erased from the books a major provision of the nation's campaign finance law. By a 5-4 vote, the justices removed the cap on the total amount of money that donors can contribute to candidates and parties in each election. Until today, that limit was $123,000. But the Supreme Court said that that limit violates donors' First Amendment rights of free speech. So, as of today, there is no limit. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The high court's ruling is the latest in a series of decisions that have all but demolished the campaign reforms adopted by Congress beginning 40 years ago in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Those reforms were aimed at restoring public confidence by preventing rich contributors from essentially buying votes with their contributions.
In 2010, however, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions could spend an unlimited amount on their own to influence elections. And today, in a case brought by the Republican National Committee, the court struck down the limit on the total amount that individual donors can give directly to candidates and parties. RNC chairman Reince Priebus.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I think it's a good day, really, because the First Amendment applies to all of us. People should have the right to give their money and exercise their free speech to as many candidates and as many political committees and PACs as they want to.
TOTENBERG: The court's decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, reversed a contrary ruling from 40 years ago. He said the aggregate limit of $123,000 is unconstitutional because it can have the effect of limiting the number of candidates an individual can support with maximum contributions. The government, he said, may not anymore restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades, he said, it surely protects political speech.
Roberts acknowledged that big donors may have influence and access to the candidates they support. But that is not enough to justify limiting their speech, he said. Instead, any limits on speech must be aimed at something close to bribery, a quid pro quo. And he dismissed as speculative the dissenters' prediction that millions of dollars in special influence money would now flood the system. He said that could be prevented by the Federal Election Commission enforcing regulations now on the books.
TREVOR POTTER: I was laughing as I read that section of the opinion.
TOTENBERG: Trevor Potter is a former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission. He also served as counsel for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.
POTTER: It's in some way sort of a willful blindness because the reality is there are lots of rules on the books and we have had now for several years a Federal Elections Commission which is not enforcing any of them. You have an FEC which is deadlocked.
TOTENBERG: Roberts' opinion did not go as far as it could have, leaving intact, for now at least, the base limits on contributions: 5,200 for individual contributions, for instance, and 32,000 for political party committees. But UCLA professor Richard Hasen sees the opinion as an invitation to future challenges.
RICHARD HASEN: The court signals that more campaign finance laws are ripe for challenge.
TOTENBERG: Joining Roberts' opinion were the court's other conservatives: Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to say he would abolish all limits on campaign contributions. Speaking for the four dissenters, Justice Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of announcing his opinion from the bench instead of the usual practice of simply filing the written version.
Today's opinion, he said, eviscerates our nation's campaign finance laws, allowing single individuals to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign. Where money calls the tune, he said, the voices of the people will not be heard and a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether. Campaign reformers echoed those concerns.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 said today's ruling would allow the House and Senate leadership to form joint committees with all their congressional candidates and seek single contributions of as much as $2.5 million from individual donors.
FRED WERTHEIMER: The court is in the process of creating a new class of American political oligarchs and that is coming at the expense of the voices and interests of more than 300 million Americans.
TOTENBERG: Professor Hasen sees an ironic twist to the court's decision.
HASEN: This opinion could lead to more corruption but less gridlock.
TOTENBERG: More money will be flowing into the system from big donors to influence outcomes, increasing the potential for corruption. But with party leaders able to raise huge sums, that will also increase their leverage with the rank-and-file members of Congress. James Bopp, one of the lawyers who represented the Republican National Committee in today's case, agrees in part.
JAMES BOPP: I agree with the idea that political parties are a moderating and beneficial influence on the political system. And so, to the extent that we can strengthen political parties, we are serving the citizens well by having a more rational, more transparent, more accountable system.
TOTENBERG: More transparent because contributions to parties and candidates must be disclosed under federal law, unlike money given to independent superPACs. And that, he says, makes the system more accountable. Of course, Democrats in Congress have tried unsuccessfully to make superPACs similarly transparent by requiring them to disclose their contributors, too. But the Republican congressional leadership has opposed those measures. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.