In McCutcheon v. FEC (572 U.S. 2014), a sharply divided (5-4) U.S. Supreme Court invalidated provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) that imposed aggregate, or total, limits on contributions to political candidates and other contributions to party committees. The decision continued a trend of the Roberts Court of deregulating the area of campaign finance reform.
Political donator challenged political donation limits
The aggregate limits permitted an individual to contribute a total of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to other political committees. This allowed an individual to contribute a total of $123,200 to candidate and committees during a two-year election cycle.
Shaun McCutcheon, who contributed to 16 different federal candidates in an earlier year, and the Republican National Committee challenged the provisions on First Amendment grounds. A three-judge federal district court upheld the provisions, finding that they served the very important purpose of preventing evasion of so-called base limits, which refer to contribution limits to individual candidates.
Court ruled that limits did not survive exacting scrutiny
Under the law, a direct appeal was filed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for a plurality, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. reasoned that the aggregate limits did not survive the exacting scrutiny required for regulations that directly limited political speech.
Roberts recognized that the Court in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) had upheld a $25,000 aggregate limit. However, Roberts reasoned that “[w]e are confronted with a different statute and different legal arguments, at a different point in the development of campaign finance regulation.” He noted that there were more anti-circumvention measures in place in the BCRA than under the earlier version of FECA.
Roberts believed limits restricted pure political speech
Roberts also believed that the restrictions imposed a draconian restriction on pure political speech. “The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” he wrote.
Roberts also questioned whether the aggregate limits served the valid purpose of preventing quid pro quo corruption as opposed to general influence. According to Roberts, Citizens United v. FEC (2010) stood for the principle that the government’s campaign finance efforts must focus on quid pro quo corruption.
Thomas thought law should protect campaign spending and contributions
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, continuing his view that Buckley v. Valeo should be overturned. Under Thomas’ view, the law should protect both campaign spending (expenditures) and contributions as a form of pure political speech.
Breyer thought corruption was too narrowly defined
Justice Stephen Breyer authored a dissenting opinion. He wrote that “today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.” He criticized the plurality for defining corruption too narrowly.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2017.