572 U.S. 185 (2014), 12-536, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

Docket Nº:12-536
Citation:572 U.S. 185, 134 S.Ct. 1434, 188 L.Ed.2d 468, 82 U.S.L.W. 4217, 24 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 639
Opinion Judge:Roberts, Chief Justice
Attorney:Erin E. Murphy argued the cause for appellants. Bobby R. Burchfield argued the cause for Senator Mitch McConnell, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court. Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. argued the cause for respondent.
Judge Panel: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, post, p, __. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Chief...
Case Date:April 02, 2014
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page __

__ U.S. __ (2014)

134 S.Ct. 1434, 188 L.Ed.2d 468, 82 U.S.L.W. 4217




No. 12-536

United States Supreme Court

April 2, 2014

Argued October 8, 2013.


[134 S.Ct. 1436] Syllabus [*]

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, 26-27, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. 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.__, __, 131 S.Ct. 2806, 2825-2826, 180 L.Ed.2d. 664.

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 [134 S.Ct. 1437] 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.


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. 1444-1476, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 487-507.

(a) Appellants' substantial First Amendment challenge to the current system of aggregate limits merits plenary consideration. Pp. 1444 - 1448, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 487-492.

(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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. 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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659, 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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. 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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659, it upheld the base limit under the "closely drawn" test, id., at 29, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. 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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. 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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. Pp. 1444 -1445, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 487-489.

(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 [134 S.Ct. 1438] 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, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. 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. 1445-1448, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 489-492.

(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, 739, 128 S.Ct. 2759, 171 L.Ed.2d 737.

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. 1447-1450, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 492-494.

(c) The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. Pp. 1450-1460, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 494-505.

(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, 128 S.Ct. 2759, 171 L.Ed.2d 737. 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, 359, 130 S.Ct, 876, 175 L.Ed.2d 753. 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, 457, 127 S.Ct. 2652, 168 L.Ed.2d 329 (opinion of ROBERTS, C. J.). Pp. 1450-1452, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 494-496.

(2) The Government argues that the aggregate limits further the permissible objective of preventing quid pro quo corruption. The difficulty is that once the [134 S.Ct. 1439] 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...

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