McCutcheon v. Federal Election Comm’n
572 U.S. ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary
The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, impose base limits, restricting how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee, and aggregate limits, restricting how much money a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a. In the 2011–2012 election cycle, McCutcheon contributed to 16 federal candidates, complying with all base limits. He alleges that the aggregate limits prevented him from contributing to additional candidates and political committees and that he wishes to make similar contributions in the future. McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee challenged the aggregate limits under the First Amendment. The district court dismissed. The Supreme Court reversed, with five justices concluding that those limits are invalid. Regardless whether strict scrutiny or the “closely drawn” test applies, the analysis depends on the fit between stated governmental objectives and the means selected to achieve the objectives. The aggregate limits fail even under the “closely drawn” test. Contributing to a candidate is an exercise of the right to participate in the electoral process through political expression and political association. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is not a “modest restraint.” To require a person to contribute at lower levels because he wants to support more candidates or causes penalizes that individual for “robustly exercis[ing]” his First Amendment rights. The proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good. The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The justices noted the line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence and that the Court must “err on the side of protecting political speech.” Given regulations already in effect, fear that an individual might make massive unearmarked contributions to entities likely to support particular candidate is speculative. Experience suggests that most contributions are retained and spent by their recipients; the government provided no reason to believe that candidates or committees would dramatically shift their priorities if aggregate limits were lifted. Multiple alternatives could serve the interest in preventing circumvention without “unnecessary abridgment” of First Amendment rights, such as targeted restrictions on transfers among candidates and committees, tighter earmarking rules, and disclosure.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

McCUTCHEON et al. v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION

appeal from the united states district court for the district of columbia

No. 12–536. Argued October 8, 2013—Decided April 2, 2014

The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1 –27. It may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others. See, e.g., Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 564 U. S. ___, ___.

          The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), imposes two types of limits on campaign contributions. Base limits restrict how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee while aggregate limits restrict how much money a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees. 2 U. S. C. §441a.

          In the 2011–2012 election cycle, appellant McCutcheon contributed to 16 different federal candidates, complying with the base limits applicable to each. He alleges that the aggregate limits prevented him from contributing to 12 additional candidates and to a number of noncandidate political committees. He also alleges that he wishes to make similar contributions in the future, all within the base limits. McCutcheon and appellant Republican National Committee filed a complaint before a three-judge District Court, asserting that the aggregate limits were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The District Court denied their motion for a preliminary injunction and granted the Government’s motion to dismiss. Assuming that the base limits appropriately served the Government’s anticorruption interest, the District Court concluded that the aggregate limits survived First Amendment scrutiny because they prevented evasion of the base limits.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

893 F. Supp. 2d 133, reversed and remanded.

     Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Alito, concluded that the aggregate limits are invalid under the First Amendment. Pp. 7–40.

     (a) Appellants’ substantial First Amendment challenge to the current system of aggregate limits merits plenary consideration. Pp. 7–14.

          (1) In Buckley, this Court evaluated the constitutionality of the original contribution and expenditure limits in FECA. Buckley distinguished the two types of limits based on the degree to which each encroaches upon protected First Amendment interests. It subjected expenditure limits to “the exacting scrutiny applicable to limitations on core First Amendment rights of political expression.” 424 U. S., at 44–45. But it concluded that contribution limits impose a lesser restraint on political speech and thus applied a lesser but still “rigorous standard of review,” id., at 29, under which such limits “may be sustained if the State demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgement of associational freedoms,” id., at 25. Because the Court found that the primary purpose of FECA—preventing quid pro quo corruption and its appearance—was a “sufficiently important” governmental interest, id., at 26–27, it upheld the base limit under the “closely drawn” test, id., at 29. After doing so, the Court devoted only one paragraph of its 139-page opinion to the aggregate limit then in place under FECA, noting that the provision “ha[d] not been separately addressed at length by the parties.” Id., at 38. It concluded that the aggregate limit served to prevent circumvention of the base limit and was “no more than a corollary” of that limit. Id., at 38. Pp. 7–9.

          (2) There is no need in this case to revisit Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures and the corresponding distinction in standards of review. Regardless whether strict scrutiny or the “closely drawn” test applies, the analysis turns on the fit between the stated governmental objective and the means selected to achieve that objective. Here, given the substantial mismatch between the Government’s stated objective and the means selected to achieve it, the aggregate limits fail even under the “closely drawn” test.

     Buckley’s ultimate conclusion about the constitutionality of the aggregate limit in place under FECA does not control here. Buckley spent just three sentences analyzing that limit, which had not been separately addressed by the parties. Appellants here, by contrast, have directly challenged the aggregate limits in place under BCRA, a different statutory regime whose limits operate against a distinct legal backdrop. Most notably, statutory safeguards against circumvention have been considerably strengthened since Buckley. The 1976 FECA Amendments added another layer of base limits—capping contributions from individuals to political committees—and an antiproliferation rule prohibiting donors from creating or controlling multiple affiliated political committees. Since Buckley, the Federal Election Commission has also enacted an intricate regulatory scheme that further limits the opportunities for circumvention of the base limits through “unearmarked contributions to political committees likely to contribute” to a particular candidate. 424 U. S., at 38. In addition to accounting for such statutory and regulatory changes, appellants raise distinct legal arguments not considered in Buckley, including an overbreadth challenge to the aggregate limit. Pp. 10–14.

     (b) Significant First Amendment interests are implicated here. Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association. A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a “modest restraint” on those rights. 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. In its simplest terms, the aggregate limits prohibit an individual from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of ten or more candidates, even if all contributions fall within the base limits. And it is no response to say that the individual can simply contribute less than the base limits permit: To require one person to contribute at lower levels because he wants to support more candidates or causes is to penalize that individual for “robustly exercis[ing]” his First Amendment rights. Davis v. Federal Election Comm’n, 554 U. S. 724 .

     In assessing the First Amendment interests at stake, the proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good. The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect individual speech that the majority might prefer to restrict, or that legislators or judges might not view as useful to the democratic process. Pp. 14–18.

     (c) The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. Pp. 18–36.

          (1) This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. See Davis, supra, at 741. Moreover, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310 . The line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights, and the Court must “err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.” Federal Election Comm’n v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 551 U. S. 449 (opinion of Roberts, C. J.). Pp. 18–21.

          (2) The Government argues that the aggregate limits further the permissible objective of preventing quid pro quo corruption. The difficulty is that once the aggregate limits kick in, they ban all contributions of any amount, even though Congress’s selection of a base limit indicates its belief that contributions beneath that amount do not create a cognizable risk of corruption. The Government must thus defend the aggregate limits by demonstrating that they prevent circumvention of the base limits, a function they do not serve in any meaningful way. Given the statutes and regulations currently in effect, Buckley’s fear that an individual might “contribute massive amounts of money to a particular candidate through . . . unearmarked contributions” to entities likely to support the candidate, 424 U. S., at 38, is far too speculative. Even accepting Buckley’s circumvention theory, it is hard to see how a candidate today could receive “massive amounts of money” that could be traced back to a particular donor uninhibited by the aggregate limits. The Government’s scenarios offered in support of that possibility are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or implausible. Pp. 21–30.

          (3) The aggregate limits also violate the First Amendment because they are not “closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms.” Buckley, supra, at 25. The Government argues that the aggregate limits prevent an individual from giving to too many initial recipients who might then recontribute a donation, but experience suggests that the vast majority of contributions are retained and spent by their recipients. And the Government has provided no reason to believe that candidates or party committees would dramatically shift their priorities if the aggregate limits were lifted. The indiscriminate ban on all contributions above the aggregate limits is thus disproportionate to the Government’s interest in preventing circumvention.

     Importantly, there are multiple alternatives available to Congress that would serve the Government’s interest in preventing circumvention while avoiding “unnecessary abridgment” of First Amendment rights. Buckley, supra, at 25. Such alternatives might include targeted restrictions on transfers among candidates and political committees, or tighter earmarking rules. Transfers, after all, are the key to the Government’s concern about circumvention, but they can be addressed without such a direct and broad interference with First Amendment rights. Pp. 30–35.

          (4) Disclosure of contributions also reduces the potential for abuse of the campaign finance system. Disclosure requirements, which are justified by “a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending,” Citizens United, supra, at 367, may deter corruption “by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity,” Buckley, supra at 67. Disclosure requirements may burden speech, but they often represent a less restrictive alternative to flat bans on certain types or quantities of speech. Particularly with modern technology, disclosure now offers more robust protections against corruption than it did when Buckley was decided. Pp. 35–36.

     (d) The Government offers an additional rationale for the aggregate limits, arguing that the opportunity for corruption exists whenever a legislator is given a large check, even if the check consists of contributions within the base limits to be divided among numerous candidates or committees. That rationale dangerously broadens the circumscribed definition of quid pro quo corruption articulated in prior cases. Buckley confined its analysis to the possibility that “massive amounts of money” could be funneled to a particular candidate in excess of the base limits. 424 U. S., at 38. Recasting as corruption a donor’s widely distributed support for a political party would dramatically expand government regulation of the political process. And though the Government suggests that solicitation of large contributions poses the corruption danger, the aggregate limits are not limited to any direct solicitation by an officeholder or candidate. Pp. 36–39.

     Justice Thomas agreed that the aggregate limits are invalid under the First Amendment, but would overrule Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1 , and subject BCRA’s aggregate limits to strict scrutiny, which they would surely fail. Buckley’s “analytic foundation . . . was tenuous from the very beginning and has only continued to erode in the intervening years.” Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U. S. 377 (Thomas, J., dissenting). Contributions and expenditures are simply “two sides of the same First Amendment coin,” and this Court’s efforts to distinguish the two have produced mere “word games” rather than any cognizable constitutional law principle. Buckley, supra, at 241, 244 (Burger, C. J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Pp. 1–5.

     Roberts, C. J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.

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Primary Holding

Under the First Amendment, the Court struck down part of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) that sought to place restrictions on aggregate contributions to political campaigns.