Supreme Court Ruling Allows Hollywood to Spend Freely on Multiple Candidates

Jeffrey Katzenberg

The industry's biggest donors — such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Haim Saban — will now be able to contribute to congressional hopefuls without the previous $123,200 limit per election cycle.

In a ruling that could dramatically alter political giving in Hollywood, the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday struck down the aggregate limit on the amount wealthy donors can give to all candidates in any federal election cycle.

Under the now-abolished regulations, a contributor could donate no more than $123,200 to all the federal candidates running in any given election. The court left untouched the current limit of $2,600 that a person can donate to any individual candidate and the maximum of $32,400 they can contribute to any political party.

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The 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts was a victory for Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee. It seems bound to inflame the ongoing debate over what many now see as the exaggerated influence the extremely wealthy exert over federal elections.

It also seems certain to increase Hollywood’s importance to the Democratic Party as a source of campaign contributions. The party’s major entertainment industry financiers -- say, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Haim Saban -- theoretically are free to contribute $2,600 to every Democrat running for a Senate or House seat in the coming midterm elections.

"Every American is now blessed to be able to contribute to all 535 members of Congress," Saban tells The Hollywood Reporter. "And I have to go back to work really hard so I can satisfy this insane decision by the Supreme Court."

Others in Hollywood who are consistently listed as top federal givers include Peter and Meg Chernin, Robert Daly, Jim Gianopulos, Alan and Cindy Horn, Ron Meyer, Rob Reiner, Tom Rothman, J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, Steve Bing, Clarence Avant, Nancy Stephens, and Harvey Weinstein.

Because the new ruling also would permit joint fundraising by the national and state party committees, it’s not unlikely that the next cycle will see fundraisers headlined by the president or congressional leaders at which seven-figure donations are solicited.

Lifting the aggregate limit on contributions also is likely to revitalize the two parties’ control of their campaigns and candidates and to increase their competition with the so-called Super PAC -- or “independent expenditure” -- committees for the large contributions of the wealthiest donors. Since the court struck down bans on corporate, nonprofit and union contributions in federal campaigns with its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United Case, the Super PACs have taken on an ever-more-influential role -- one many analysts now expect to diminish as larger donations flow to the parties’ national committees. In the last election cycle, for example, GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads network spent more than $300 million, which exceeded the total amount raised by the Republican National Committee.

"Today's Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is 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," RNC chairman Reince Priebus said following Wednesday’s ruling. "I am … pleased that the court agreed that limits on how many candidates or committees a person may support unconstitutionally burden core First Amendment political activities. When free speech is allowed to flourish, our democracy is stronger."

The court split along predictable ideological lines with all five Republican-appointed justices voting to strike down the limit. While this ruling builds on the First Amendment grounds the court first adopted in Citizens United, most of the justices signaled they’re not prepared to strike down the ceiling on contributions to individual candidates and committees established in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision.

In a separate concurring opinion, however, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would, if given the opportunity, eliminate all contribution limits as violations of donors’ First Amendment rights.

Roberts -- in an opinion joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy -- wrote that the ”Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. We have consistently rejected attempts to suppress campaign speech based on other legislative objectives. No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to ‘level the playing field,’ or to ‘level electoral opportunities,’ or to ‘equalize the financial resources of candidates…’ The First Amendment prohibits such legislative attempts to ‘fine-tune’ the electoral process, no matter how well intentioned.”

Justice Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of reading a summary of the dissenters’ opinion from the bench. It argued that the majority’s decision would allow donors to bundle contributions into huge sums, thereby re-creating the so-called “soft money” era, when contributors could give any amount to political parties.

Since 1990, people in Hollywood have contributed more than $365 million to federal elections, placing the entertainment industry 10th on the list of top givers, according the Center for Responsive Politics.