540 U.S. 93 (2003), 02-1674, McConnell v. Federal Election Commission

Docket Nº:No. 02-1674
Citation:540 U.S. 93, 124 S.Ct. 619, 157 L.Ed.2d 491, 72 U.S.L.W. 4015
Party Name:McConnell v. Federal Election Commission
Case Date:December 10, 2003
Court:United States Supreme Court

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540 U.S. 93 (2003)

124 S.Ct. 619, 157 L.Ed.2d 491, 72 U.S.L.W. 4015



Federal Election Commission

No. 02-1674

United States Supreme Court

December 10, 2003

Argued September 8, 2003 [*]



The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), the Communications Act of 1934, and other portions of the United States Code, is the most recent of nearly a century of federal enactments designed "to purge national politics of what [is] conceived to be the pernicious influence of `big money' campaign contributions." United States v. Automobile Workers, 352 U.S. 567, 572. In enacting BCRA, Congress sought to address three important developments in the years since this Court's landmark decision in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (per curiam): the increased importance of "soft money," the proliferation of "issue ads," and the disturbing findings of a Senate investigation into campaign practices related to the 1996 federal elections.

With regard to the first development, prior to BCRA, FECA's disclosure requirements and source and amount limitations extended only to so-called "hard money" contributions made for the purpose of influencing an election for federal office. Political parties and candidates were able to circumvent FECA's limitations by contributing "soft money" money as yet unregulated under FECA -- to be used for activities

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intended to influence state or local elections; for mixed-purpose activities such as "get out the vote" (GOTV) drives and generic party advertising, and for legislative advocacy advertisements, even if they mentioned a federal candidate's name, so long as the ads did not expressly advocate the candidate's election or defeat. With regard to the second development, parties and candidates circumvented FECA by using "issue ads" that were specifically intended to affect election results, but did not contain "magic words," such as "Vote Against Jane Doe," which would have subjected the ads to FECA's restrictions. Those developments were detailed in a 1998 Senate Committee Report summarizing an investigation into the 1996 federal elections, which concluded that the soft money loophole had led to a meltdown of the campaign finance system; and discussed potential reforms, including a soft money ban and restrictions on sham issue advocacy by nonparty groups.

Congress enacted many of the committee's proposals in BCRA: Title I regulates the use of soft money by political parties, officeholders, and candidates; Title II primarily prohibits corporations and unions from using general treasury funds for communications that are intended to, or have the effect of, influencing federal election outcomes; and Titles III, IV, and V set out other requirements. Eleven actions challenging BCRA's constitutionality were filed. A three-judge District Court held some parts of BCRA unconstitutional and upheld others. The parties challenging the law are referred to here as plaintiffs, and those who intervened in support of the law are intervenor-defendants.


The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

251 F.Supp.2d 176, 251 F.Supp.2d 948, affirmed in part and reversed in part.

JUSTICE STEVENS and JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the Court's opinion with respect to BCRA Titles I and II, concluding that the statute's two principal, complementary features -- Congress' effort to plug the soft money loophole and its regulation of electioneering communications -- must be upheld in the main. Pp. 133-224.

1. New FECA § 323 survives plaintiffs' facial First Amendment challenge. Pp. 133-189.

(a) In evaluating § 323, the Court applies the less rigorous standard of review applicable to campaign contribution limits under Buckley and its progeny. Such limits are subject only to "closely drawn" scrutiny, see 424 U.S. at 25, rather than to strict scrutiny, because, unlike restrictions on campaign expenditures, contribution limits "entai[l] only a marginal restriction upon the contributor's ability to engage in free communication," e.g., id. at 20-21. Moreover, contribution limits are grounded in the important governmental interests in preventing "both

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the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and the eroding of public confidence in the electoral process through the appearance of corruption." E.g., Federal Election Comm'n v. National Right to Work Comm., 459 U.S. 197, 208. The less rigorous review standard shows proper deference to Congress' ability to weigh competing constitutional interests in an area in which it enjoys particular expertise, and provides it with sufficient room to anticipate and respond to concerns about circumvention of regulations designed to protect the political process' integrity. Finally, because Congress, in its lengthy deliberations leading to BCRA's enactment, properly relied on Buckley and its progeny, stare decisis considerations, buttressed by the respect that the Legislative and Judicial Branches owe one another, provide additional powerful reasons for adhering to the analysis of contribution limits the Court has consistently followed since Buckley. The Court rejects plaintiffs' argument that the type of speech and associational burdens that § 323 imposes are fundamentally different from the burdens that accompanied Buckley's contribution limits. Pp. 134-142.

(b) New FECA § 323(a) -- which forbids national party committees and their agents to "solicit, receive, direct, or spend any funds that are not subject to [FECA's] limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements," 2 U.S.C. §§ 441i(a)(1), (2) -- does not violate the First Amendment. Pp. 142-161.

(1) The governmental interest underlying § 323(a) -- preventing the actual or apparent corruption of federal candidates and officeholders -- constitutes a sufficiently important interest to justify contribution limits. That interest is not limited to the elimination of quid pro quo, cash-for-votes exchanges, see Buckley, supra, at 28, but extends also to "undue influence on an officeholder's judgment, and the appearance of such influence," Federal Election Comm'n v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Comm., 533 U.S. 431, 441 (Colorado II). These interests are sufficient to justify not only contribution limits themselves, but also laws preventing the circumvention of such limits. Id. at 456. While the quantum of empirical evidence needed to satisfy heightened judicial scrutiny of legislative judgments varies with the novelty or plausibility of the justification raised, Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 377, 391, the idea that large contributions to a national party can corrupt or create the appearance of corruption of federal candidates and officeholders is neither novel nor implausible, see, e.g., Buckley, supra, at 38. There is substantial evidence in these cases to support Congress' determination that such contributions of soft money give rise to corruption and the appearance of corruption. For instance, the record is replete with examples of national party committees'

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peddling access to federal candidates and officeholders in exchange for large soft money donations. Pp. 143-154.

(2) Section § 323(a) is not impermissibly overbroad because it subjects all funds raised and spent by national parties to FECA's hard money source and amount limits, including, e.g., funds spent on purely state and local elections in which no federal office is at stake. The record demonstrates that the close relationship between federal officeholders and the national parties, as well as the means by which parties have traded on that relationship, have made all large soft money contributions to national parties suspect, regardless of how those funds are ultimately used. The Government's strong interests in preventing corruption, and particularly its appearance, are thus sufficient to justify subjecting all donations to national parties to FECA's source, amount, and disclosure limitations. Pp. 154-156.

(3) Nor is § 323(a)'s prohibition on national parties' soliciting or directing soft money contributions substantially overbroad. That prohibition's reach is limited, in that it bars only soft money solicitations by national party committees and party officers acting in their official capacities; the committees themselves remain free to solicit hard money on their own behalf or that of state committees and state and local candidates and to contribute hard money to state committees and candidates. Plaintiffs argue unpersuasively that the solicitation ban's overbreadth is demonstrated by § 323(e), which allows federal candidates and officeholders to solicit limited amounts of soft money from individual donors under certain circumstances. The differences between §§ 323(a) and 323(e) are without constitutional significance, see National Right to Work, 459 U.S. at 210, reflecting Congress' reasonable and expert judgments about national committees' functions and their interactions with officeholders. Pp. 157-158.

(4) Section 323(a) is not substantially overbroad with respect to the speech and associational rights of minor parties, even though the latter may have slim prospects for electoral success. It is reasonable to require that all parties and candidates follow the same rules designed to protect the electoral process's integrity. Buckley, 424 U.S. at 34-35. A nascent or struggling minor party can bring an as-applied challenge if § 323(a) prevents it from amassing the resources necessary to engage in effective advocacy. Id. at 21. Pp. 158-159.

(5) Plaintiffs' argument that § 323(a) unconstitutionally interferes with the ability of national committees to associate with state and local committees is unpersuasive because it hinges on an unnaturally broad reading...

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