McCutcheon v. FEC (Campaign Finance)

What happened?

  • The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) imposes two types of limits on campaign contributions:  how much money an individual can donate to a particular candidate and how much money an individual can give in total to all candidates or committees.
  • In the 2012 election cycle, Shaun McCutcheon contributed just over $33,000 to 16 different federal candidates, giving the maximum total allowed by federal law.  He wanted to give to more candidates and committees but was prevented from doing so because he had reached the max aggregate amount.
  • McCutcheon filed suit alleging that the aggregate limit on contributions to candidates and political committees is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.  He did not challenge the limitation on how much can be given to one candidate.
  • The federal District Court ruled in favor of the FEC, holding that the government’s interest in preventing corruption was sufficient to allow the First Amendment limitation.

How did the Supreme Court rule?

  • McCutcheon wins 5-4; the District Court judgment is reversed.
  • Chief Justice Roberts held that the right to political contributions is protected by the First Amendment but it is not absolute.  However, the government cannot regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics.  Thus, aggregate limits on political contributions are invalid under the First Amendment.
    • The limits on how much one can give to an individual candidate remain valid.

What did the dissent say?

  • Justice Breyer argued that the aggregate limit is important to protect the political integrity of our governmental institutions, and that this ruling creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to candidates.  This opens the door for more corruption and unelected individuals gaining great influence in the governing process.

Why does it matter?

  • Individuals like McCutcheon can now give freely in future elections with no limits on how much they want to give (provided they don’t give a single candidate more than allowed by law).
  • The ruling, along with the prior Citizens United case, has dramatically changed campaign finance reform and election law.

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