The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the overall limits that wealthy donors can contribute to political campaigns, a victory for anti-regulation conservatives who saw the caps as a serious restriction on free speech rights.
The justices, in a 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. the Federation Election Commission, said Americans have the right to contribute the legal maximum to individual candidates for congressional and presidential races, political parties and some political action committees.
Federal law currently says that during a two-year election cycle, individuals can't give more than $48,600 to all candidates for federal office and no more than $74,600 to national party committees that make contributions to candidates.
With the ruling, individuals can give to as many candidates, parties or PACs as they wish, though the amount can't exceed the individual caps.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who issued the main opinion, said the purpose of laws regulating campaign contributions should be to thwart “quid pro quo” corruption, or when a contributor donates money in exchange for favors. And he suggested that by keeping in check the caps on how much each single donation can be, corruption in politics will be kept in check.
"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 opinion. "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 court's other conservative-leaning justices, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, agreed with Roberts' opinion.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in writing for the dissenters, said the court's decision "eviscerates" federal campaign finance laws and was "incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."
The case has been compared with the historic Citizens United decision in which the Supreme Court in 2010 struck down most limits on corporate and union spending in elections on the grounds they violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
But Citizens United didn't touch campaign contribution limits for individuals. Lead plaintiff Shaun McCutcheon, a prominent Republican donor from Alabama, said the total $123,200 cap was unfair.
Eliminating the contribution limits will allow a single politician to solicit — and a single donor to give — up to $3.6 million through the use of joint fundraising committees, according to the the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.
Critics say removing the caps will lead to big-money donors gaining even more influence over elections than they already have, a scenario they say would lead to corruption.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said the justices' decision was "divorced from reality."
"It is disheartening that five members of the Supreme Court appear oblivious to the destructive impact of the court’s campaign finance decisions on our nation’s political system," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said. "The notion that an effort to gain influence over or access to elected officials does not constitute corruption is, as the dissent noted, wrong."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the ruling will lead to significant money spent on political campaigns.
"This decision only serves to widen the floodgates of special interest spending," she said.
Labor unions also railed against the ruling, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calling it "one of the most undemocratic and corrosive (Supreme Court) decisions in history."
But McCutcheon, joined in his case by the Republican National Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it was wrong to assume more money in elections leads to corruption.
"The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice," McConnell said. "The court did recognize that it is the right of the individual, and not the prerogative of Congress, to determine how many candidates and parties to support."
Outside conservative groups praised the decision, with Club for Growth President Chris Chocola saying it represented a "great day for the First Amendment and a great day for political speech."
The Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics, in a joint study, identified 20 big political donors they suggested would most likely take advantage of the new campaign limits and found that 13 contributed solely to Republican candidates and parties, while four gave only to Democrats. Three of the donors gave to candidates of both parties, though they heavily favored one party over the other.
Three of the donors head companies currently lobbying the federal government, while 17 of them made large contributions to so called super PACs. The Sunlight Foundation opposes the high court's ruling, while the Center for Responsive Politics hasn't taken a formal position.
This article was originally published at 11:45 a.m. and has since been updated.