McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

PETITIONER: Shaun McCutcheon, et al.
RESPONDENT: Federal Election Commission
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Columbia

DOCKET NO.: 12-536
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 572 US (2014)
GRANTED: Feb 19, 2013
ARGUED: Oct 08, 2013
DECIDED: Apr 02, 2014

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the appellee
Erin E. Murphy - for the appellants

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.


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

Media for McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 02, 2014 (Part 2) in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 08, 2013 in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 02, 2014 (Part 1) in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

I have the announcement this morning in case 12-536, McCutcheon v. The Federal Election Commission.

There is no right, more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.

Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways.

They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for a particular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign and contribute to a candidate's campaign.

This case is about the last of those options.

A federal campaign finance law limits the aggregate amount of money an individual may contribute each election cycle.

The question is whether these aggregate limits are consistent with the First Amendment.

Under federal law, there are two types of contribution limits.

The first is base limits.

Base limits restrict how much money someone can give to a candidate or a political committee.

The second type is aggregate limits.

Aggregate limits restrict how much total money someone may give over the course of an election cycle.

In effect, aggregate limits restrict how many candidates or committees a donor may support at the permissible level for each.

Forty years ago in a case called Buckley v. Valeo, this Court recognized that contributing money to a campaign is protected by the First Amendment as political speech.

The Court also ruled that this right to participate in the political process was not absolute and could be limited, but for one reason only, to prevent corruption.

In particular, the Court rejected the idea that the Government could restrict contributions simply to limit the amount of money in politics.

This is how the Court put it in Buckley, “the concept that Government may restrict the speech of some elements in our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.”

The Court in Buckley noted that the specific sort of corruption that could justify limits on contributions was therefore limited to something called quid pro quo corruption.

That's Latin for this for that and means a contribution to a particular candidate in exchange for his agreeing to do a particular act within his official duties.

The Buckley court upheld the base limits because they protected against such quid pro quo corruption.

Nothing we say in our opinion today affects the base limits in any way.

At the end of its analysis, the Court also spent three sentences of its 139 page opinion on the aggregate limit.

It noted that the aggregate limit had not been separately addressed by the parties.

But it upheld that limit again for one reason only, because it helped prevent corruption.

The aggregate limit did that by preventing evasion of the base limits.

The concern was that donors might give huge sums of money to political committees that would then pass that money along to a particular candidate effectively getting around the base limits.

We began with this analytic framework from Buckley but we cannot end with its decision concerning the aggregate limit at issue in that case.

First, as noted, the question was barely briefed there and was addressed in only three sentences -- three sentences on an important First Amendment question.

Equally significant, the statutory and regulatory background has changed since Buckley.

Two examples, at the time of Buckley there were no limits on contributions to political committees, so large amounts of money could easily be given to such a committee to be transferred to a candidate.