WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down decades-long limits on how much individuals can make in combined contributions to political campaigns, another step in the court’s steady reversal of Watergate-era rules that were adopted to curb the influence of big money in American politics.
Illustrating the far-reaching ramifications of the ruling, just hours after it was announced Massachusetts ceased enforcing its own caps on overall contributions to state, county, and local candidates.
In a 5-to-4 decision that fell along ideological lines, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government to limit the total amount of money an individual can give to all federal candidates, parties, and political action committees.
The ruling did not affect the current maximum contribution to any single candidate. But the court’s majority — reinforcing the concept that political spending is the equivalent of political speech — said First Amendment rights allow citizens to contribute the legal maximum to as many individual political candidates as they please. The justices nullified the government’s aggregate limit, which had been set at $123,200 for federal elections.
“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority 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 decision continued to weaken campaign finance laws. The court’s 2010 Citizens United opinion allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. A previous appellate court decision permitted unlimited donations to so-called super PACs, which also have transformed the electoral landscape in recent years.
‘If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.’
Joining Roberts in the majority opinion Wednesday were the other four justices appointed by Republican presidents: Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Clarence Thomas.
The minority argued that the decision could damage democracy and lead to political corruption.
“If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in reading his dissent.
“Taken together with Citizens United . . . 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,” he wrote.
Joining Breyer in the dissent were Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. All four were appointed by Democratic presidents.
Specialists said the ruling will give contributors a freer hand to write more campaign checks in the current mid-term congressional elections. Campaign finance watchdogs warned there would be a number of negative effects, opening up loopholes to funnel money to candidates in new ways.
The ruling appears to mostly benefit a small pool of the wealthiest donors: During the 2012 election, only 644 donors — including hedge fund and private equity managers — hit the donation limit to federal candidates and committees, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The limit for an individual contribution to a single candidate remains at $5,200 and at $32,400 for a national party committee. The aggregate limit per election cycle was $123,200. But with no aggregate limit, a contributor conceivably could give more than $3.7 million in one election cycle if he contributed the maximum to a candidate in every House and Senate race in the country, as well as to multiple political committees, the center’s analysis said.
“We fear it’s going to go from say $120,000 of abuse to several million dollars of money sloshing around the system, often for the benefit of one candidate coming from a single donor,” said Tara Malloy, who is a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, and who co-wrote a brief on the case’s losing side.
She and other specialists predicted the next frontier in campaign funding would be joint fund-raising committees — a collection of committees that would support the same candidate.
“Up until this point the joint fund-raising effort has been limited by the aggregate limit. Now, the sky’s the limit.”
The case was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman who argued the limits on contributions infringed on his freedom of speech. Several others, including the Republican National Committee and the Senate’s majority leader, Mitch McConnell, signed on in support.
Under challenge was a landmark decision, Buckley v. Valeo. In that 1976 case, the Supreme Court upheld contribution limits Congress had passed in response to the Watergate scandal. But in the Roberts era, the Supreme Court has shown a willingness to set aside financial limits in politics in favor of First Amendment arguments.
In this case, the majority said the government can no more limit the number of candidates a donor can support than it can tell a newspaper how many candidates to endorse.
But critics in Washington warned that removing contribution limits adopted 40 years ago to prevent corruption will encourage more “pay-to-play” scandals in Washington, in which special interests seek to influence an official decision by donating money to a politician.
“I predict that as a result of recent Court decisions, there will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again,” said Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and coauthor of 2002 campaign finance legislation that has been mostly upended by the courts.
Alan Solomont, a former Obama fund-raiser and ambassador to Spain who is now dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, said the decision further cements the impression that political influence can be bought.
“There is some validity to the idea that our political system is influenced by money and that money speaks louder than the voice of individuals or even groups of citizens,” Solomont said. “This is eating away at our democracy.”
Wealthy donors can now “cumulatively assert a lot more influence on the party of their choice than they were able to do before,” Solomont said.
But David Tamasi, a Republican fund-raiser and lobbyist, downplayed the potential impact of the decision on fundraising strategy.
“This isn’t going to be all of a sudden, well, eureka! It’s more of a symbolic statement about free speech and political participation,” Tamasi said. “You could argue it expands the playing field for folks who are active politically to do a little bit more.”
The decision had a swift impact on eight states, including Massachusetts, that have an aggregate limit on contributions.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance said that state limits on aggregate giving by individuals to candidates for state, county, and local offices would no longer be enforced as a result of the ruling.
“There is no more $12,500 limit,” said Jason Tait, the spokesman for the agency, referring to the overall yearly limit for giving to all Massachusetts candidates running for in-state offices.
Individuals are still prohibited from giving more than $500 per year to a state candidate or their political committee.
But, should they choose, donors would now be allowed to give, for example, to every candidate running for every office. Before today, they would have been limited to giving the $500 maximum to 25 candidates each year.
But the impact may be muted: A study done by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that no donors in Massachusetts exceeded the aggregate state limit during the past two election cycles.Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.