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McCutcheon v. FEC

The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to affirm the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits, the total amount that individuals can donate to federal candidates, political parties, and political committees during an election cycle.

Published: April 2, 2014

On April 2, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC. By a 5–4 vote, the Court struck down limits on the total amount that any one donor can give to candidates, party committees, and PACs in an election cycle. The Court also defended giving access and influence to donors as supporting a key democratic right, and ruled that donors have the same right to influence officials as do the constituents those officials are elected to represent. 

The Controlling Opinion

Chief Justice Roberts: “[G]overnment regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. 'Ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption.' They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be respon­sive to those concerns.”

The Dissent:

Justice Breyer: “[This is] a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”

“Taken together with Citi­zens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), 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.”

The Brennan Center’s Brief for Appellee

The Brennan Center for Justice filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to affirm the judgment of the lower court and uphold the aggregate contribution limits. The brief discussed the fundamental government interest in preventing domination of the political process by the few to the detriment of the many.  From the nation’s inception, the Founders sought to ensure the integrity of the new system of representative government. Aggregate contribution limits were a continuation of the Founders’ dedication to defeating corruption. Striking down the aggregate limits would allow wealthy Americans to give over $3.5 million directly to politicians and parties each election cycle, inviting a torrent of funds that would undermine faith in government integrity. The undue access and influence to elected officials springing from these contributions would raise the specter of corruption at a time when faith in government is already distressingly low. 

Brennan Center Amicus Brief in Support of Appellee

Background on the Case

Federal aggregate contribution limits capped the total amount that any one contributor could donate to candidates, political parties, and political committees during an election cycle. Whereas an individual could give no more than $5,200 to any one federal candidate per election cycle, the limits had ensured that individuals were not able to give $5,200 to each and every federal candidate. Instead, the contributors were subject to a limit of $123,200 in contributions to all federal candidates, parties, and political committees per cycle.

In 2012, an Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon reached the aggregate candidate and party contribution limits, but still wanted to give money to a number of other candidates and the Republican National Committee (RNC). McCutcheon and the RNC challenged the aggregate limits as unconstitutional, claiming that they violate the First Amendment because they burden protected political speech and are not justified by a compelling government interest.

On September 28, 2012, the District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the constitutionality of the aggregate contribution limits. The court specifically cited the aggregate limits’ ability to prevent circumvention of the underlying base contribution limits as a reason for upholding the law. They reasoned that without the limits, transfers of funds between committees would allow a single candidate to end up with the entire amount of a very large contribution that was initially spread among many candidates and committees. On October 9, 2012, the Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and on February 19, 2013, the Court agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments were heard October 8, 2013.

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