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Joan Stallard, right, of Washington D.C., talks about the Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC decision with Scott Dorn of Washington D.C., in front of the court April 2. / Rod Lamkey, Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The way the Supreme Court sees it, Americans' free speech rights are more important than stopping U.S. elections from becoming ever more expensive.

The high court's 5-4 ruling Wednesday giving political activists carte blanche to spread more cash around - while maintaining limits on how much can go to any one candidate or party - will boost the influence of money in politics and the power of wealthy donors and party leaders.

It will immediately alter the political landscape ahead of November's midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race. It could transform state contests as well, eroding aggregate contribution limits in 12 states and the District of Columbia. And it could lead to further efforts to eliminate restrictions on campaign donations.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the 40-page opinion that did away with 4-decade-old limits on how much contributors can give overall to the federal candidates, committees and parties of their choice. The chief justice reasoned that limits on each contribution help prevent corruption, but limits on the number of such donations must give way to basic First Amendment rights.

"Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects," Roberts 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."

The limits on campaign contributions had stood since 1976. The high court had drawn a distinction between those contributions, which it said could lead to corruption, and money spent independently in its landmark Buckley v. Valeo decision.

Roberts' ruling was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. The court's fifth conservative, Clarence Thomas, put it over the top but said he would have made it easier for opponents to challenge all contribution limits.

The decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which came nearly six months after it was argued at the start of the court's term in October, marks the latest round in the bitter national debate over the role of money in American politics.

It's the most important campaign-finance ruling since the high court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts to influence candidate elections. Overturning that decision has become a battle cry of liberal campaign-finance watchdogs.

The court's four liberal justices issued a blistering, 43-page dissent complete with charts showing how, in their view, a single donor will be able to give $3.6 million to political parties, committees and candidates in a two-year election cycle.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the minority that the decision "understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions."

"Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today's decision eviscerates our nation's campaign-finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve," Breyer wrote.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

The decision was a victory for the Republican National Committee, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, who challenged the $123,200 cap on contributions an individual can give to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees in a two-year cycle.

McCutcheon's challenge did not extend to the $2,600 limit on how much a donor can give to a federal candidate in each primary and general election or the $32,400 limit that can go to a national party committee. Those limits, which Roberts agreed guard against corruption, are at the root of the federal law.

Under the ruling, donors must stick to the $2,600 limit but can give to as many campaigns as they want. The decision also could jeopardize contribution caps in at least a dozen states, from Arizona to Wyoming.

"Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which 'we the people' hold the ultimate reins of power," McCutcheon said.

Defenders of government limits have warned that "joint fundraising committees" operated by party bosses will be able to funnel up to $3.6 million from one donor to any vulnerable candidates. In his dissent, Breyer charted out how that scheme would work.

"With its Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, the Supreme Court has turned our representative system of government into a sandbox for America's billionaires and millionaires to play in," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21.

Sen. John McCain, an author of the 2002 law banning unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties, said the ruling signals the court wants to "dismantle" laws designed to limit the influence of special interests. The Arizona Republican predicted "there will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again."

Nearly 1.3 million people donated more than $200 to federal candidates, party committees and PACs in the 2012 election cycle, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Only about 640 hit the maximum donation limit.

Roberts argued in his ruling that regulations implemented since the Buckley decision in 1976 make end-runs around the base donation limits more difficult. Rather than abridging free speech rights, he said, Congress could take further steps, such as restricting transfers of donations among political committees and candidates.

Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center said the court appeared "out of touch" with the gridlock in Congress and day-to-day functioning of the Federal Election Commission, where partisan deadlock has stymied action on many regulations.

IMPACT IN NOVEMBER?

The decision comes just seven months before high-stakes midterm elections that will determine which party controls the Senate, where a net gain of six seats could bring Republicans to power and further reduce President Obama's sway.

Republicans, who financed McCutcheon's court challenge, claimed the lifting of aggregate contribution limits will help their side achieve that goal. "It will allow us to bring in the resources we need to win an ever-expanding Senate map," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. He said party officials will tell donors that "instead of giving to only nine candidates, you can give to the 14 candidates in play."

Breyer and his fellow liberals on the court said that by strengthening the power of wealthy donors, the ruling weakens the "collective speech" of all others. "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard," he wrote.

That was the view of Obama back in October, when the case was argued. He said eliminating overall caps on contributions would shut ordinary Americans out of the process, while the court's Citizens United decision had allowed deep-pocketed "ideological extremists" a bigger voice in politics.

Roberts said any concern about balancing influence between the haves and have-nots must take a back seat to basic First Amendment rights. "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 said.

Other party officials and political donors said they don't expect a tidal wave of change like that unleashed by the court's blockbuster Citizens United decision and a separate ruling that paved the way for super PACs.

"Super PACs are already the Wild West and can do anything they want," Houston lawyer and Democratic megadonor Steve Mostyn said. "If you are going to write a large check, you are just going to write it to a super PAC."

"It won't be a lot of money, and it won't be that big an effect, because there are not that many people" who can write big political checks, said Jim Bopp, an Indiana lawyer who brought the Citizens United case and worked on the latest challenge to the aggregate limits.

Fred Malek, a veteran Republican fundraiser, said the ability to support more candidates is an option some contributors will exercise. "Candidate money is the most productive money," he said, because candidates have direct control over their advertising message and get the least expensive television advertising rates.

Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California-Irvine, said the ruling offers a road map for attacking the ban on unlimited soft money to political parties. The Republican National Committee sued unsuccessfully in 2010 to overturn the soft money ban.

"If I did not like the soft-money ban, I would be in court with that challenge," said Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor. "This is a green light for that lawsuit."

Follow @richardjwolf and @fschouten on Twitter.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Court ruling boosts role of money in American politics

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