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McCutcheon v. FEC Carries On Citizens United’s Legacy of Protecting Political Speech

In what many are calling the biggest ruling on campaign finance since the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down laws limiting the total amount of money individuals can donate to federal candidates, political committees, and political parties.

Chief Justice John Roberts led the charge in the 5-4 decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, finding that the $123,200 cap on an individual’s donations to candidates and committees, per two-year election cycle, violated the First Amendment. (Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito signed on to C.J. Roberts’ opinion, with Justice Thomas agreeing in a separate concurrence that the limit should be invalidated.)

Relaying that First Amendment jurisprudence protects an individual’s right of political association via campaign contributions, Roberts determined that the cap failed the scrutiny test applicable to laws restricting political speech. Such restrictions are constitutional only if ‘“the State demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms,”’ McCutcheon, No. 12-536, slip op. at 8 (Apr. 2, 2014) (quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 25 (1976)).

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The Court agreed that the aggregate limit imposed a burden on free speech, since it prohibited an individual from contributing the maximum base amount to 10 or more candidates (within the $123,200 cap, only $48,600 can go to candidates). It surmised, “The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.” Id. at 15. Therefore, a thorough examination of the government’s motives in keeping these limits was needed.

Roberts affirmed that Supreme Court precedent “has identified only one legitimate government interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption,” id. at 18, and that corruption must be of the quid pro quo variety, id. at 19. (For example, contributing money to an officeholder directly in exchange for control of the officerholder’s official duties). Moreover, the Court cited Citizens United in proclaiming, “because the Government’s interest in preventing the appearance of corruption is equally confined to the appearance of quid pro quo corruption, the Government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access.” Id.

The opinion expressed difficulty understanding how the government could argue that contributing the maximum base amount ($5,200) to 9 candidates prevented quid pro quo corruption, yet contributing the same maximum amount to 10 candidates encouraged such corruption. Id. at 21-22. Thus, the government could only justify the aggregate limits by showing they “prevent circumvention of [these] base limits.” Id. at 22.

However, the Court found that the government could not even prove the legitimacy of this purpose. It determined that numerous rules regulating antiproliferation and earmarking already prevent wealthy donors from directly channeling money given to outside groups to candidates in order to circumvent and exceed base limits to candidates. Id. at 23. For example, such a donor giving to a noncandidate PAC “cannot retain control over his contribution [. . .], direct his money ‘in any way’ to [a particular candidate], or even imply that he would like his money to be recontributed [to a particular candidate].” Id. at 23 (citing numerous FEC regulations). As with this example, all the possible “corruption” issues suggested by the government and the dissent that would occur absent aggregate limits are already illegal or incredibly implausible. Id. at 28.

Finally, the Court concluded that the aggregate limit was not “closely drawn” to both achieve its purpose of preventing circumvention and protect First Amendment freedoms. Id. at 30. For instance, the Court pointed to evidence showing that “candidates who receive campaign contributions spend most of the money on themselves, rather than passing along donations to other candidates.” Id. at 32. Additionally the Court highlighted evidence showing that not even political parties or committees give vast amounts of money directly to candidates. Id. at 31. Consequently, the Court determined “the indiscriminate ban on all contributions above the aggregate limits is disproportionate to the Government’s interest in preventing circumvention.” Id. at 32. Furthermore, the Court offered that a less restrictive approach to solve this problem would be to, for example, limit transfers between political committees and candidates. Id. at 33. Thus there was little need for such overreaching aggregation limits.

In closing, the Court asserted that the aggregate limits on campaign donations “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise ‘the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”’ Id. at 40 (citing Buckley, 424 U.S. at 14). We here at Citizens United could not agree more, and we are proud that our 2010 Supreme Court case continues to play such an important role in advancing freedom of speech for all Americans.

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