WASHINGTON — — A divided Supreme Court has struck down aggregate limits on how much money wealthy donors may spend on elections, a decision that could pour vast sums of new cash into the nation's increasingly expensive system of campaign finance.
The 5-4 ruling Wednesday, which drew a pointed response from the court's dissenting liberals, will have broad implications for federal elections but also could affect contests in Maryland — including this year's race for governor — by undermining similar contribution limits called for in state law.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the caps on political donations did little to address corruption but limited donors' ability to exercise their free-speech right to contribute to candidates.
"Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects," he wrote. "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."
Watchdog groups and Democrats in Congress denounced the decision, arguing that the court — along with its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that allowed corporate donations — had eviscerated federal campaign finance controls put in place 40 years ago in response to Watergate.
"It allows one single wealthy donor to influence the whole institution in one fell swoop," said Rep. John Sarbanes, the Baltimore County Democrat who has become a leading supporter of overhauling the campaign finance system. "It adds to the influence of the big-money donors out there."
Limits on direct contributions to specific candidates and parties would remain in place. A donor would still be prohibited from giving more than $5,200 to a single federal candidate during a two-year election cycle, for instance.
But the court did away with aggregate caps that limit how much a donor may give overall. For the current election, donors were prohibited from giving more than $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to parties and political action committees over the two-year period.
Now, a single donor would be able to give up to $3.6 million in one election cycle to benefit a slate of candidates.
Campaign finance experts predict that the ruling could have an impact on this year's midterm election, in which Republicans are hoping to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats. Neither of Maryland's senators is up for re-election this year, and, for now, all of the state's incumbent House members appear to be safe for re-election.
The ruling could also change fundraising for the 2016 presidential election. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is considering a run for the Democratic nomination and is already raising money for that effort.
Republican leaders, who helped bring the lawsuit challenging the limits, said the decision was an important extension of previous precedents that equated the First Amendment protection of free speech with political giving.
"Freedom of speech is being upheld," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters shortly after the court's ruling. "You all have the freedom to write what you want to write. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give."
The impact on state limits remains unclear, but several experts said Maryland's aggregate cap of $10,000 over four years is likely now on shaky legal ground. The state's limit is among the strictest in the nation, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia have no such limits on donations.
Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, predicted that state caps would probably be challenged. Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign watchdog group Democracy 21, was blunter in his assessment of the state limits.
"They are gone," he wrote in an email.
And it may not take a court challenge to bring about that change. Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division at the Maryland State Board of Elections, said his office will consult with the attorney general to determine whether the ruling bars the state from enforcing its law.
DeMarinis said he expects the state to issue a letter of guidance to donors and campaigns by April 11.
That guidance could have an impact on this year's election if it allows donors who had otherwise hit the aggregate cap to start spending again. Donors in Maryland may give no more than $4,000 to an individual candidate.
The primary is set for June 24.
Still, it's not clear whether state candidates would be able to capitalize on such a change in the same way as federal candidates because of the way state law handles transfers from one committee to another.
Del. Jon Cardin, chair of the House subcommittee in Annapolis that oversees campaign finance, called the ruling "very disappointing" but said he doubts it would upend donation limits in Maryland.
"They haven't ruled the Maryland cap to be unconstitutional — unless there is someone who brings that case to the courts, and I don't see that happening," said the Baltimore County Democrat, who is running for attorney general.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Maryland lawmakers approved an overhaul of the state's campaign finance law last year that raised the aggregate donor limit from $10,000 to $24,000, beginning in January 2015. The measure also closed a loophole that allowed corporations to skirt donation limits by giving through a series of legal liability corporations.
At the federal level, donors are already allowed to make unlimited donations to so-called Super PACs, which can be used to pay for advertising in a race as long the activity is not coordinated with a candidate.
By opening up other types of committees capable of accepting more cash, the court's ruling Wednesday could shift some of the emphasis away from Super PACs and toward joint-fundraising committees that are often controlled by political parties.
"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," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in his dissent. "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard."
Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.