WASHINGTON (CN) - Four years after Citizens United, the Supreme Court's conservative majority on Wednesday invalidated aggregate limits on campaign contributions that kept wealthy individuals from infusing millions of dollars into their political parties.
The four-justice dissent notes that, coupled with the court's landmark 2010 ruling, "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."
Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Convention had brought the challenge at issue against the Federal Election Commission, claiming that aggregate limits hamper free speech.
The limit is a provision of the Federal Elections Campaign Act that would prevent donors in the 2013-14 election cycle from contributing more than an aggregate of $48,600 to candidates and their authorized committees and no more than $74,600 to anyone else, limiting the total amount of contributions over a two-year period.
McCutcheon wishes to contribute at least $60,000 to various candidates and $75,000 to committees in the 2013-14 election cycle. In the 2011-12 election cycle, he contributed $33,088 to 16 different candidates, in amounts ranging from $1,776 to $2,500. He gave $1,776 each to the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He also gave $2,000 to the Senate Conservatives Fund and $20,000 to the Alabama Republic Party.
A three-judge panel in Washington had rejected his challenge in 2012, but the Supreme Court's reversal Wednesday holds aggregate limits "invalid under the First Amendment."
Base limits, which restrict how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee, remain in place. Indeed the court had upheld such limits decades earlier in Buckley v. Vallejo "as serving the permissible objective of combatting corruption," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the plurality.
While Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito joined the 40-page lead opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas concurred only in judgment.
He wrote that Buckley "denigrates core First Amendment speech and should be overruled."
"This case represents yet another missed opportunity to right the course of our campaign finance jurisprudence by restoring a standard that is faithful to the First Amendment," Thomas wrote. "Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a 'halfway house' of our own design."
The lead opinion skewers the aggregate limits as doing little toward their stated objective of preventing circumvention of base limits, "while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process."
Noting that Buckley "spent a total of three sentences analyzing" aggregate limits, the plurality insisted that the 1976 decision does not control.
The limits today "operate against a distinct legal backdrop," according to the ruling, because they are in place under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002.
"With more targeted anticircumvention measures in place today, the indiscriminate aggregate limits under BCRA appear particularly heavy-handed," Roberts added.
Overbreadth is just one issue with aggregate limits that the court did not consider in Buckley, according to the ruling.
"We are confronted with a different statute and different legal arguments, at a different point in the development of campaign finance regulation," Roberts wrote. "Appellants' substantial First Amendment challenge to the system of aggregate limits currently in place thus merits our plenary consideration."
Though the court in Buckley called the aggregate limits in place at the time a "quite modest restraint upon protected political activity," the plurality found that characterization unpalatable.
"An aggregate limit on how many candidates and committees an individual may support through contributions is not a 'modest restraint' at all," Roberts wrote (emphasis in original). "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."
It is not a sufficient alternative to say that frustrated donors can vindicate their associational interests by personally volunteering on behalf of a candidate, according to the ruling.
"Such personal volunteering is not a realistic alternative for those who wish to support a wide variety of candidates or causes," Roberts wrote. "Other effective methods of supporting preferred candidates or causes without contributing money are reserved for a select few, such as entertainers capable of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening."
As for the government's stated interest of fighting corruption, the plurality noted that Congress is limited to targeting only quid pro quo conduct.
"The line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence may seem vague at times, but the distinction must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights," Roberts wrote.
Though the plurality fails to mention the similarly divisive 2010 ruling Citizens United v. FEC outside of citations, the dissent emphasizes that this precedent makes Wednesday's holding particularly insidious.
"In the plurality's view, a federal statute could not prevent an individual from writing a million dollar check to a political party (by donating to its various committees), because the rationale for any limit would 'dangerously broade[n] the circumscribed definition of quid pro quo corruption articulated in our prior cases,'" Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
"This critically important definition of 'corruption' is inconsistent with the court's prior case law (with the possible exception of Citizens United, as I will explain below)," he continues. "It is virtually impossible to reconcile with this court's decision in McConnell, upholding the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). And it misunderstands the constitutional importance of the interests at stake."
The majority's failure to rest on a "record-based, view of the facts" is pervasive in its overruling of Buckley, according to the 30-page dissent.
"Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake," Breyer wrote. "It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.