On November 28, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sitting en banc, unanimously rejected a First Amendment challenge to the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (the Act or FECA) per-election limits on individual contributions to federal candidates. The court held that Congress’s choice of the per-election timeframe is reasonable and does not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.
Background and original challenge
The Act allows individuals to contribute “to any candidate and his authorized political committees with respect to any election for Federal office.” The individual contribution limits apply on a per-candidate, per-election basis, with a separate limit for each election in which the candidate participates (e.g., primary, general, runoff, etc.).
In 2014, plaintiffs, Laura Holmes and Paul Jost, wished to make contributions to several federal candidates. During that election cycle, the contribution limit was $2,600 per election from an individual to a federal candidate. (The limit has since increased to $2,700 per election for the 2017-18 election cycle.) At the time, the plaintiffs had already made the maximum contribution of $2,600 to their chosen candidates for the general election and wished to contribute an additional $2,600 toward the general election. Neither plaintiff had made a contribution in connection with the candidates’ primary election campaigns, which had already occurred.
The plaintiffs challenged the Act’s per-election contribution limits as violating their First and Fifth Amendment rights by allowing separate $2,600 contributions to a candidate in the primary and general elections, but disallowing a single contribution of $5,200 for the general election alone. The plaintiffs argued that the separate primary and general election limits “artificially bifurcat[ed]” what they characterized as a $5,200 combined limit for both elections and unconstitutionally burdened their First Amendment right of association while furthering no compelling anti-corruption interest.
In 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenges posed questions of settled law and thus did not warrant certification to the en banc court of appeals. However, in 2016 a panel of the court of appeals disagreed with respect to the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims and remanded to the district court so that the question of constitutionality of the per-election contribution limits could be certified to the en banc court of appeals.
Court of Appeals decision
In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court established standards for judicial review of First Amendment challenges to campaign finance regulations. The Court noted that while restrictions on a person’s independent speech are subject to “strict scrutiny,” in which the limitations advance a compelling governmental interest and constitute the least restrictive means of doing so, restrictions on direct contributions to candidates and party committees are subject to a lesser but still “rigorous standard of review.”
In this case, the plaintiffs did not challenge the permissibility of contribution limits per se, but instead characterized their constitutional claim as “contesting ‘only the manner in which the total amount of money that Congress has said will not corrupt a candidate is split between the primary and general elections.’” They argued that the Act’s distinct limits for primary and general elections could not be upheld because the statute permits (and thus Congress allegedly considers non-corrupting) an individual to make a total of $5,200 in contributions over the course of the primary and general elections. The plaintiffs maintained that they should not be forced to divide their desired $5,200 general election contribution between separate primary and general elections.
The court rejected this contention and stated that, “Plaintiffs’ argument falls short at every step. Their challenge ultimately seeks to invalidate the per-election structure of FECA’s base contribution limits for individuals. Plaintiffs would prefer a version of an election-cycle ceiling (of $5,200) to the per-election ceiling (of $2,600) chosen by Congress. But just as the Supreme Court in Buckley declined to overturn Congress’s choice of a $1,000 contribution ceiling over a higher ceiling, we see no basis to upset Congress’s choice of a per-election ceiling over a per-cycle ceiling.”
The plaintiffs maintained that they did not challenge a contribution amount limitation itself, but rather that Congress’s choice to establish a per-election structure is an additional restriction that itself must advance an anti-corruption interest. But the court noted that for a contribution limit to be effective, it must contain two essential components: 1) a monetary cap; and 2) a time period. When Congress chose a per-election time period, it simply was establishing the timeframe with which the contribution limit was to be connected. The court stated, “[W]e see no basis for requiring Congress to justify its choice concerning the other essential element of a contribution limit—its timeframe—as itself serving that interest [of preventing corruption]. A contribution ceiling, we know from Buckley, can validly promote an anti-corruption objective, at least as long as it is not so low as to prevent effective campaigns.”
The court further noted that a per-election ceiling on contributions promotes the ability of candidates to gain “adequate funding for each election in which they must compete,” including runoff elections, if held. The court pointed out that Congress was not obligated to select a per-election structure, and could have chosen another timeframe, but that its choice of a per-election contribution restriction is permissible under the First Amendment.
- Holmes, et al. v. FEC litigation page