Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court on Wednesday removed the overall limit on contributions a donor can make to political candidates, a move which critics say could give rich individuals unfair influence over elections.
The move was immediately hailed by Republicans, who are gearing up to challenge President Barack Obama's Democratic supporters for control of the Senate in November mid-term elections.
The top court, in a 5-4 ruling read by Chief Justice John Roberts, did retain limits on the amount an individual donor can give to a single candidate but removed an overall cap.
The Obama administration had argued that aggregate limits help fight corruption by preventing wealthy donors from circumventing the cap on individual contributions by funding rafts of candidates.
But the Supreme Court's five more conservative justices ruled that the overall ceiling did little to address graft and bribery "while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process.
"The aggregate limits are therefore invalid under the First Amendment" to the Constitution, which guarantees free speech, the court's ruling said.
The decision annuls current rules that cap an individual's overall campaign donations at no more than $123,200 over two years.
And the ruling comes four years after the court lifted a ceiling on campaign giving by corporations and unions, in the controversial case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Federal Election Commission.
"If the Court in Citizens United opened a door, today's decision may well open a floodgate," warned liberal justice Stephen Breyer in a dissenting opinion released along with the judgment.
Obama, who had vehemently attacked the Citizens United decision in his State of the Union speech in 2010, did not immediately comment.
A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration was "disappointed" and still reviewing the decision.
- Influence or free speech? -
Critics said Wednesday's ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC was another big blow to the US campaign financing system, giving the wealthy greater rein to use their money to influence elections.
"While we are not surprised by today's outcome, we are disappointed that the plutocracy we predicted is now sanctioned by the high court," said the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates greater government transparency.
Republican Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, said a majority of justices were moving to "dismantle entirely the longstanding structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics."
But most Republicans hailed the decision as a victory for free speech.
Donors should have the right "to give what they want to give," said House Speaker John Boehner.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called it "an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse."
The court's majority said they had found only one legitimate reason for restricting campaign financing: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.
"Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder's official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption," it concluded.
"Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner influence over or access to elected officials or political parties."
- Loophole? -
Breyer, writing for the court's liberal minority, said the court understated the importance of protecting the political integrity of government 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," he wrote.
"Indeed, taken together with Citizen's United, today's holding, we fear, eviscerates our nation's campaign finance laws."
For Janai Nelson, a professor at St. John's University School of Law, the ruling "reinforced the notion that American democracy is for sale."
"The court seems to be on a steady path toward eliminating decades of campaign finance protections aimed at preventing our government from operating as a real-life 'House of Cards'," Nelson said, referring to the popular Netflix series about Washington politics.