02 April 2014

Law in Plain English: McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogMcCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Argument: Oct 8 2013 (Aud.)

Background: Congress enacted the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) to "promote fair practices in the conduct of election campaigns for Federal political offices." In 1974, Congress amended FECA to prohibit persons from contributing more than $1,000 to any political candidate, individuals from contributing more than an aggregate of $25,000 in any calendar year, and political committees from contributing more than $5,000 to any political candidate. In 2002, Congress passed  the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA, popularly known as the McCain-Feingold Act) which replaced the $25,000 aggregate limit with a bifurcated limiting scheme of base limits (not being challenged here) and aggregate limits. During each two-year period starting in an odd-numbered year, no individual may contribute more than an aggregate of $46,200 to candidates and their authorized committees or more than $70,800 to anyone else. Of that $70,800, no more than $46,200 may be contributions to political committees that are not national political party committees. These aggregate limits, which amount to a total biennial limit of $117,000, thus prevent individuals from contributing the statutory maximum to more than eighteen candidates. McCutcheon wanted to contribute more; his additional candidate contributions would amount to aggregate candidate contributions of $54,400. A three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia denied McCutcheon's claim.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether the biennial, aggregate limit on contributions to non-candidate committees is unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment.

Holding: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. As a result, the aggregate limits violate the First Amendment and are not constitutional. Justice Thomas did not join the majority opinion, but concurred in the judgment only. Nonetheless, he agreed that the aggregate limits are invalid under the First Amendment, but would go further than the majority and overrule Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1, and subject BCRA’s aggregate limits to strict scrutiny, where (he says) they would surely fail.
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