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By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a key pillar of campaign finance law by allowing wealthy donors to give money to as many political candidates, parties and committees as they wish.
On a 5-4 vote, the court struck down the overall limits on how much individuals can donate during the federal two-year election cycle.
Before the ruling, donors could not exceed a $123,200 overall limit during the two-year period. The ruling allows donors to contribute nearly $6 million in the same period, according to public advocacy groups.
Wednesday's Supreme Court decision is the latest in a series of rulings by the conservative-led court to give big-money donors more influence in U.S. elections.
Republicans, who generally favor lifting finance limits, hailed the decision. Democrats typically argue for tighter restrictions, fearing that wealthy individuals could otherwise hold undue influence over the political process.
The ruling leaves in place base limits on how much a donor can give each candidate, committee and party, limiting the scope of the decision.
In the current two-year election cycle (2013-14), an individual can give $2,600 to each candidate or committee and $32,400 to a national political party.
Election lawyers said the ruling means wealthy donors can give to more candidates ahead of this November's mid-term congressional elections than was previously allowed.
The court said the aggregate limits violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech. The majority rejected the contention of President Barack Obama's administration that the limits are needed to fight corruption.
The caps "do little, if anything, to address that concern, while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
"What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld," Republican John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters.
Fred Wertheimer, an advocate for campaign finance limits, said the court had "continued its march to destroy the nation's campaign finance laws, which were enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy."
The 5-4 split was along party lines, with the five justices appointed by Republican presidents joining the majority and the four appointed by Democratic presidents dissenting.
The decision comes four years after the court's landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that cleared the way for increased independent corporate and union spending during federal elections.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said the ruling, along with Citizens United, "eviscerates our nation's campaign finance laws."
Laws that require candidates, parties and political action committees to disclose information about donors are also not affected.
Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that supports contribution limits, said prior to the ruling that a decision like Wednesday's would allow a single donor to write a $5.9 million check to a joint fundraising committee controlled by an elected politician or party official, with that individual then distributing the money to individual candidates and local or state committees.
Both parties already use joint fundraising committees to solicit large donations from wealthy donors, but the court's ruling increases how much they can solicit from each person. Supporters of contribution limits say that could lead to individuals wielding undue influence, a view that is contested by those who favor less regulation.
The Campaign for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions, has said that only a "very small handful of people" are currently close to reaching the existing aggregate caps. According to its data, only 591 donors nationwide gave the maximum allowable to federal candidates in 2012.
Further down the line, Wednesday's ruling could threaten the legal architecture that underpins other campaign finance regulations.
The court was divided over how sweeping the ruling actually is. Roberts, writing on behalf of four justices, said the court did not reach the question of whether to overturn a key 1976 ruling, called Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld limits on campaign finance donations while also describing how courts should analyze such regulations. Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with Roberts, said the court had gone further than the chief justice claimed. The court had continued to "chip away" at the Buckley decision, Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion.
The aggregate limits have been in place, in various forms, since 1974, with the most recent version dating back to the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee had challenged the contribution caps. McCutcheon could give only the maximum amount allowable to a total of nine candidates before he hit the cap under the current law.
The case is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commision, U.S. Supreme Court, 12-536. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Dan Grebler)