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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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