McCutcheon v. FEC

Justia Summary

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, impose base limits, restricting how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee, and aggregate limits, restricting how much money a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a. In the 2011–2012 election cycle, McCutcheon contributed to 16 federal candidates, complying with all base limits. He alleges that the aggregate limits prevented him from contributing to additional candidates and political committees and that he wishes to make similar contributions in the future. McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee challenged the aggregate limits under the First Amendment. The district court dismissed. The Supreme Court reversed, with five justices concluding that those limits are invalid. Regardless whether strict scrutiny or the “closely drawn” test applies, the analysis depends on the fit between stated governmental objectives and the means selected to achieve the objectives. The aggregate limits fail even under the “closely drawn” test. Contributing to a candidate is an exercise of the right to participate in the electoral process through political expression and political association. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is not a “modest restraint.” To require a person to contribute at lower levels because he wants to support more candidates or causes penalizes that individual for “robustly exercis[ing]” his First Amendment rights. The proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good. The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The justices noted the line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence and that the Court must “err on the side of protecting political speech.” Given regulations already in effect, fear that an individual might make massive unearmarked contributions to entities likely to support particular candidate is speculative. Experience suggests that most contributions are retained and spent by their recipients; the government provided no reason to believe that candidates or committees would dramatically shift their priorities if aggregate limits were lifted. Multiple alternatives could serve the interest in preventing circumvention without “unnecessary abridgment” of First Amendment rights, such as targeted restrictions on transfers among candidates and committees, tighter earmarking rules, and disclosure.

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