WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's conservative majority voted Wednesday to free wealthy donors to give to as many political candidates and campaigns as they want, further loosening the reins on giving by big contributors as the 2014 campaign moves into high gear.
It was a fresh declaration by the 5-4 majority that many limits on big-money contributions violate the givers' constitutional free-speech rights, continuing a steady erosion of the restrictions under Chief Justice John Roberts. The biggest of those rulings was the 2010 decision in the Citizens United case that lifted restrictions on independent spending by corporations and labor unions.
Wednesday's ruling voided the overall federal limit on individuals' contributions — $123,200 in 2013 and 2014 — and may have more symbolic than substantive importance in a world in which millions in unlimited donations from liberal and conservative spenders already are playing a major role in campaigns.
The ruling will allow the wealthiest contributors to pour millions of dollars into candidate and party coffers, although those contributions will be subject to disclosure under federal law, unlike much of the big money that independent groups spend on attack ads.
The early beneficiaries could be the political parties, which have lost influence amid the rise of independent spending, and challengers who may have been cut off from getting money from wealthy contributors who previously hit the cap that the court invalidated Wednesday.
Roberts said the aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, the rationales the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits.
The overall limits "intrude without justification on a citizen's ability to exercise 'the most fundamental First Amendment activities'," Roberts said, quoting from the court's seminal 1976 campaign finance ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. By contrast, Roberts said the individual or "base limits remain the primary means of regulating campaign contributions."
The justices left in place limits on individual contributions to each candidate for president or Congress, now $2,600 for a primary and another $2,600 for the general election.
Justice Clarence Thomas supported the outcome, but said he would have wiped away all contribution limits as violating the First Amendment.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the liberal dissenters, said that the court's conservatives had "eviscerated our nation's campaign finance laws" through Wednesday's ruling and the earlier Citizens United case.
"If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today's decision we fear will open a floodgate," Breyer said in comments from the bench. "It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institution. It creates, we think, a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign."
Breyer adopted examples put forward by the Obama administration and campaign-limits supporters showing that an individual now will be able to make $3.6 million in contributions to candidates and parties, hand it over in one check to maximize his sway and have much or all of it directed to a favored candidate. Breyer said the money may have to be divvied up among state and national party organizations and rerouted, but that it can be done without violating the law.
Roberts said the dissenters' fears were overstated because other federal laws prohibit the circumvention of the individual limits and big donors are more likely to spend a lot of money independently in support of a favored candidate.
Running for federal political office has grown steadily more expensive, driven by the costs of advertising, travel, pollsters and the like. Most candidates pay for their campaigns with contributions from individual donors. That money is disclosed in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
But under the 2010 Citizens United decision, the wealthiest donors seeking outsized influence on campaigns have found a new avenue for their money. Outside groups known as super PACs or nonprofits can take unlimited contributions and spend independently to sway voters. Those donations are often undisclosed, leading critics to refer to them as "dark money."
Reaction to Wednesday's ruling generally followed party lines, with advocates of capping money in politics aligned with Democrats in opposition to the decision.
The administration had defended the limits in arguments at the Supreme Court. "We are, in fact, disappointed with the decision that was announced today," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said, "This in itself is a small step, but another step on the road to ruination. It could lead to interpretations of the law that would result in the end of any fairness in the political system as we know it."