McCutcheon, et al. v. FEC
On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC that struck down the aggregate limits on the amount an individual may contribute during a two-year period to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees combined. By a vote of 5-4, the Court ruled that the biennial aggregate limits are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The Act imposes separate limits on the amounts that individuals may contribute to federal candidates and other political committees. Some of these limits are indexed for inflation. Currently, an individual may contribute up to $2,500 per election to federal candidates, up to $30,800 per calendar year to a national party committee and up to $5,000 per calendar year to any non-party political committee.
Additionally, the Act imposes an overall limit on the aggregate amount individuals may contribute in a two-year period. Under the inflation-adjusted limits effective January 1, 2011, through December 31, 2012, an individual may contribute no more than a total of $46,200 to all federal candidates, and no more than $70,800 to federal political action committees and political party committees. Combining those amounts, the aggregate biennial limit in 2011-2012 for an individual is $117,000.
Alabama resident Shaun McCutcheon would like to contribute more than the current biennial limit permits, and the RNC would like to receive contributions from individuals like Mr. McCutcheon that would exceed the aggregate limits.
The plaintiffs challenge both the $46,200 aggregate limit on candidate contributions and the $70,800 aggregate limit on other contributions as violating the First Amendment. They ask for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the FEC from enforcing the aggregate limits.
District court decision
Previously, in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court held that limits on contributions implicate fundamental First Amendment interests, but that such limits may be imposed as long as they are closely drawn to match a sufficiently important governmental interest. The plaintiffs argue in this case that the biennial limits are effectively limitations on expenditures, which are subject to a higher "strict scrutiny" standard of review.
The court rejected this assertion, instead stating that "the difference between contributions and expenditures is the difference between giving money to an entity and spending that money directly on advocacy. Contribution limits are subject to lower scrutiny because they primarily implicate the First Amendment rights of association, not expression, and contributors remain able to vindicate their associational interest in other ways." As such, the court held that aggregate limits do not regulate money spent to influence the national political discourse; instead, "the regulated money goes into a pool from which another entity draws to fund its advocacy."
The court further stated that the government may justify aggregate contribution limits as a means of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, or as a means of preventing circumvention of contribution limits imposed to further the government’s anti-corruption interest. The aggregate limits are able to prevent evasion of the base contribution limits.
The court rejected the plaintiffs' claims that the contribution limits were unconstitutionally low and overbroad, writing, "…it is not the judicial role to parse legislative judgment about what limits to impose." The court noted that there are no “danger signs” that the contribution limits were not narrowly tailored to achieve the governmental interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. The aggregate contribution limits affect what an individual may contribute directly to committees; those individuals still remain free to volunteer, join political associations and engage in independent expenditures.
Accordingly, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction and granted the FEC's motion to dismiss. On October 9, 2012, the Plaintiffs filed their Notice of Appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Supreme Court decision
In the Court’s plurality opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 26-27 (1976) (per curiam)."
Roberts went on to write, "Congress may target only a specific type of corruption—‘quid pro quo’ 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 quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties."
As a result, the Court concluded that "the aggregate limits on contributions do not further the only governmental interest this Court accepted as legitimate in Buckley. They instead intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise 'the most fundamental First Amendment activities.'"
While the Court’s decision removes the overall cap on individual contributions, it does not affect the Act's base limits on individual contributions to federal candidate campaigns, PACs or party committees. As of 2014, individuals may contribute up to $2,600 per election to a federal candidate, $10,000 per calendar year to a state party committee, $32,400 per calendar year to a national party committee and $5,000 per calendar year to a PAC.
Source: FEC Record—April 2014; October 2012; July 2012
Supreme Court (12-536)
- Opinion (04/02/2014)
- Reply Brief for Appellant Shaun McCutcheon (08/19/2013)
- Reply Brief for Appellant RNC (08/16/2013)
- Brief Amici Curiae of the National Education Association, et al. in Support of Appellee (07/31/2013)
- Brief of Amici Curiae Communications Workers of America, et al. in Support of App (07/25/2013)
- Brief of the Campaign Legal Center, et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellee (7/25/2013)
- Brief of Amici Curiae Representatives Chris Van Hollen and David Price in Support of Appellee (07/25/2013)
- Brief of Democratic Members of the United States House of Representatives as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellee (07/25/2013)
- Brief Amicus Curiae of Professor Lawrence Lessig in Support of Appellee (07/25/2013)
- Brief of Americans for Campaign Reform as Amicus Curiae Supporting Appellee (07/24/2013)
- Brief of the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law as Amicus Curiae in support of Appellee (07/24/2013)
- Brief for the Appellee (07/18/2013)
- Brief of Senator Mitch McConnell as Amicus Curiae Supporting Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief Amicus Curiae of Downsize DC Foundation, et al. in support of Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Amici Curiae Brief of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and the Media Institute in Support of Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief of Tea Party Leadership Fund, et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief of Amicus Curiae Center for Competitive Politics in Support of Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief Amicus Curiae of the Committee for Justice in Support of Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief of the Institute for Justice as Amicus Curiae in Support of Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief of Cause of Action Institute as Amicus Curiae Supporting Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Amicus Curiae Brief of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in Support of the Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief of the Cato Institute as Amicus Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs-Appellants (05/13/2013)
- Brief of the NRSC and NRCC Supporting Plaintiffs-Appellants(05/10/2013)
- Amicus Curiae Brief of the American Civil Rights Union in Support of Appellants (05/08/2013)
- Brief on the Merits for Appellant RNC (05/06/2013)
- Brief for Appellant Shaun McCutcheon (05/06/2013)
- Brief Opposing Motion to Dismiss or Affirm (01/14/2013)
- Motion to Dismiss or Affirm (01/02/2013)
Appeals Court (DC Circuit)
District Court (DC)
- Order and Final Judgment (08/15/2014)
- Memorandum Opinion (09/28/2012)
- Plaintiffs' Notice of Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court (10/09/2012)
- Plaintiffs' Opposition to FEC's Motion to Dismiss (09/04/2012)
- Defendant FEC's Motion to Dismiss (08/20/2012)
- Reply Memorandum in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction (07/20/2012)
- Memorandum of Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 as Amici Curiae in Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction (07/10/2012)
- Defendant FEC's Opposition to Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction (07/09/2012)
- Application for Three-Judge Court or, alternatively, Certification under 2 U.S.C. 437h, and Memorandum in Support (06/22/2012)
- Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction (06/22/2012)
- Verified Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief (06/22/2012)