McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: First Amendment
  • Date Filed: February 19, 2013
  • Case #: 12-536
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Court Below: United States District Court, District of Columbia (unpublished) (2012)
  • Full Text Opinion

Whether the aggregate individual political contribution limit imposed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is an unconstitutional burden on would-be contributors’ First Amendment rights.

When Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), it amended the Federal Election Campaign Act (2 U.S.C. § 431 et seq.) and replaced the $25,000 aggregate limit on individual political contributions with a bifurcated scheme. Under BCRA, individual contributors are subject to base limits which regulate the amount a “person” can contribute to, inter alia, each candidate, political party or PAC, and aggregate limits which cap the total amount an individual may contribute in any two-year election cycle. (2 U.S.C. §441a).

Thus, under the base contribution limits, an individual can contribute as much as he or she wants, provided the contributions remain within the limits for each recipient. However, the aggregate limits prevent this and limit the individual to $46,200 which he or she may contribute to candidates.

Appellant McCutcheon is an Alabama resident who has contributed a total of $33,088 to sixteen different candidates, but wants to contribute more, and Appellants Republican National Committee would like to receive his contributions, but because of the aggregate limit have been forced to refuse and return contributions from McCutcheon and others similarly situated.

Appellants brought suit to challenge these aggregate limits as unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment, and the United States District Court for the District of Columbia rejected their challenge and granted Respondents’ motion to dismiss. The District Court held that “[c]ontribution limits are subject to lower scrutiny because they primarily implicate the First Amendment rights of association, not expression, and contributors remain able to vindicate their associational interests in other ways.”

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Appellants argue that the District Court erred when applying intermediate scrutiny since the aggregate limits “burden First Amendment rights.” According to Appellants, Respondents failed to show “a cognizable risk that a cognizable conduit-contribution to a candidate could actually result from an individual’s unearmarked, base-limit contribution to a national-party committee” and that since Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) held that only the avoidance of corruption and its appearance could constitutionally justify restrictions on campaign contributions, and Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) limited “corruption” to quid pro quo exchanges, that this failure should have triggered strict scrutiny.

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