McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Comm’n

Following is the case brief for McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 134 S. Ct. 1434 (2014)

Case Summary of McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Comm’n:

  • Two federal election laws imposed certain limits on how much a person could donate in elections.
  • The “base limit,” restricted how much someone could donate to a particular candidate or committee.  The “aggregate limit,” restricted how much someone could donate in total during a two-year election cycle.
  • An Alabama voter, McCutcheon, sued the Federal Election Commission, arguing that the aggregate limit violated the First Amendment because it was too low and served no government interest.  The District Court dismissed the suit.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  A plurality of the Court held that the aggregate limit does not further a governmental interest in preventing corruption and it is too great a restraint on political speech.

McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Comm’n Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 impose certain limits on political contributions by individuals or entities.  The “base limit” is a restriction on the amount of money a person can donate to a certain candidate or committee.  The “aggregate limit” is the total amount of money a person can donate in one election cycle.

An Alabama voter, McCutcheon, and the Republican National Committee filed suit, urging the court to find that the aggregate limit violated the First Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the suit.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does limiting the amount of money a political donor can spend during an election cycle violate the First Amendment?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the District Court for the District of Columbia is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Money is speech, and therefore it cannot be restricted under the First Amendment unless it is to prevent quid-pro-quo corruption.

Reasoning:

  • Money is Speech Under the First Amendment

In this plurality opinion, the Court noted that the right to participate in elections through political donations is protected by the First Amendment.  While Congress may regulate political donations to protect against corruption, the goals of reducing money in politics or restricting someone’s participation to enhance the relative influence of others are not legitimate governmental reasons for regulating political donations.  While some might be repulsed by money in politics, the First Amendment protects a lot of repugnant speech.

  • Only Quid-Pro-Quo Corruption Can Justify Limiting Aggregate Donations

The only kind of corruption that would justify the government limiting political “speech” is “quid pro quo” corruption (i.e., bribery) or the appearance of such corruption.  The aggregate limits in this case do nothing to address that issue, and yet they seriously limit the ability to give donations as political “speech.”  Therefore, they violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.

  • Legal Standards Under Buckley

With regard to the legal standard to be applied, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, found that limits on how much a candidate spends (expenditure limits) must be held to strict scrutiny, such that protected speech may only be regulated if the regulation promotes a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.  It also found that limits on how much an individual can donate to a cause (contribution limits) must be held to a lesser, yet still rigorous, standard.  That lesser, so-called “closely held” standard, provides that a regulation is permissible if the government demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of freedom to associate.

Here, it appears that the Court finds the aggregate limits at issue to violate both the “strict scrutiny” and “closely held” standards.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring in the Judgment (Thomas):

Buckley should be overruled.  “Strict scrutiny” should be the standard for both expenditures and contributions.  In essence, everyone should be able to spend whatever they want on and for campaigns.  Only a limit that serves a compelling government interest should be allowed.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

A majority of the Court, using faulty legal analysis and ignoring the competing constitutional interests at stake, has destroyed campaign finance law in this country.  The only type of corruption the Court allows for regulation is incredibly narrow.  The Court has now allowed the incredibly rich to essentially control elections, to the disadvantage of virtually all citizens in this country.  The Court’s decision in this case, along with its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, will erode the legitimacy of this democracy.

Significance:

McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Comm’n is a landmark decision along with the case four years earlier of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  They both show that the conservative justices on the Court have been successful in “deregulating” American political campaigns.  Premised on the legal fiction that political donations constitute “speech” deserving of full First Amendment protections, McCutcheon and Citizens United have reignited a fierce debate in the U.S. over the role of money in politics.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

 

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