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James v. FEC


On October 31, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Commission by Virginia James. The plaintiff challenged the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (the Act) biennial limit on an individual’s contributions to federal candidates.


In addition to an individual’s per-committee contribution limit, the Act limits the aggregate amount that an individual may contribute to federal candidates, parties and PACs in a two-year period. This biennial limit is adjusted for inflation in odd-numbered years. In 2011-12, an individual can contribute no more than $46,200 to candidates and no more than $70,800 to party committees and PACs. 2 U.S.C. §§441a(a)(3)(A) and (B).

The James suit challenged the constitutionality of 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(3)(A), which limits individual contributions to federal candidates to $46,200 over the course of a two-year election cycle. Ms. James, a New Jersey resident, asserted she would like to make contributions to federal candidates in increments of $2,500 or less that would collectively exceed the biennial limit of $46,200.

Court decision

Ms. James filed suit against the Commission on August 31. At the time, the three-judge court was considering McCutcheon v. FEC (D.D.C. Civ. No. 12-1034). The plaintiffs in that case had challenged several of the Act’s aggregate contribution limits, including the same $46,200 limit that Ms. James challenged. On September 19, the court stayed James’ suit until the McCutcheon case was resolved. On September 28, the court rejected all of the McCutcheon plaintiffs’ claims, dismissed that lawsuit and turned back to the James case.

In its opinion in James, the district court found no basis to distinguish between the two cases. The court’s opinion in James quotes from the McCutcheon opinion and reiterates many of the same findings. The opinion rejected the claim that the biennial limit on contributions to candidates is unconstitutionally low and overbroad. The court also disagreed with the argument that contribution limits should be subject to strict scrutiny, stating that contribution limits primarily implicate the First Amendment right of association, not expression, and that individuals are able to vindicate their associational interests through other means.

The court concluded that the outcome of the James suit was dictated by the court’s earlier decision in McCutcheon and dismissed the suit.

Summary disposition

On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court reversed the district court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, finding the aggregate contribution limits unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Consistent with that opinion, the Court then vacated the district court’s decision in James and ordered the district court to reconsider its opinion in light of McCutcheon.

On remand from the Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia aligned its judgment in James v. FEC with the high court’s opinion in McCutcheon, declaring that the biennial aggregate limit on an individual’s contributions to federal candidates and their authorized committees is unconstitutional.

Source: FEC RecordMay 2014; April 2014; November 2012; September 2012