MCCUTCHEON v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
12-536
Appellant 
Shaun McCutcheon, et al.
Appellee 
Federal Election Commission
Decided By 
Advocates
(for the appellants)
(for Senator Mitch McConnell as amicus curiae supporting the appellants)
(Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the appellee)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which established two sets of limits to campaign contributions. The base limit placed restrictions on how much money a contributor—defined broadly as individuals, partnerships, and other organizations—may give to specified categories of recipients. The aggregate limit restricted how much money an individual may donate in a two-year election cycle. The limits were periodically recalibrated to factor in inflation.

Shaun McCutcheon is an Alabama resident who is eligible to vote. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, he donated to the Republican National Committee, other Republican committees, as well as individual candidates. He wished to donate more in amounts that would be permissible under the base limit but would violate the aggregate limit. McCutcheon and the other plaintiffs sued the Federal Election Commission, arguing that the aggregate limit violated the First Amendment by failing to serve a “cognizable government interest” and being prohibitively low. The district court held that the aggregate limit served government interests by preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption and was set at a reasonable limit.

Question 

Is the two-year aggregate campaign contribution limit constitutional under the First Amendment?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for McCutcheon, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended

No. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion for the four-justice plurality. The plurality held that the aggregate limit did little to address the concerns that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was meant to address and at the same time limited participation in the democratic process. Because the aggregate limit fails to meet the stated objective of preventing corruption, it does not survive the “rigorous” standard of review laid out by previous precedent dealing with campaign contributions from a First Amendment perspective and is therefore unconstitutional. The aggregate limit also prevents a donor from contributing beyond a specific amount to more than a certain number of candidates, which may force him to choose which interests he can seek to advance in a given election. The plurality held that the collective interest in combating corruption can only be pursued as long as it does not unnecessarily curtail an individual’s freedom of speech, and in this case the aggregate limit is not sufficiently closely tailored to accomplish this goal. The plurality also noted that there are many other means by which the government may fight election corruption without setting an aggregate limit on campaign contributions.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment in which he argued that the Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo, a previous case dealing with limits on campaign contributions, should be overruled because it denigrates the core values of the First Amendment. Because the reasoning in Buckley v. Valeo could not sufficiently justify using a standard lower than strict scrutiny to examine limits on campaign contributions, Justice Thomas wrote that Buckley should be overruled and the BCRA should be subject to strict scrutiny.

In his dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the plurality’s opinion misconstrues the nature of competing constitutional issues and destroys campaign finance laws, which causes great harm to the democratic process. Justice Breyer argued that the plurality’s opinion was based on a definition of corruption that is too narrow to be effective. He went on to state the reasoning that the aggregate limit is faulty is because there is no substantial mismatch between Congress’ goal of combating corruption and the means established to achieve it. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan joined in the dissent.

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MCCUTCHEON v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 01 September 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2013/2013_12_536>.
MCCUTCHEON v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2013/2013_12_536 (last visited September 1, 2014).
"MCCUTCHEON v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed September 1, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2013/2013_12_536.