The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of federal campaign contribution laws yesterday morning in McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Commission (No. 12-536). The Court’s 5-4 decision held that federal aggregate limits on contributions to candidates and controlled committees violate the First Amendment. The decision marks a second major blow by the Roberts Court to post-Watergate campaign finance laws, following the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Fed. Election Commissionto invalidate all limits on contributions to independent committees. 

McCutcheon partnered with the Republican National Committee in his First Amendment challenge to limits on aggregate contributions to candidates and parties in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (the “campaign contribution laws”). McCutcheon did not challenge the campaign contribution laws’ base contribution limit ($2,600 per candidate, $32,400 per year to a national party committee, etc.), which the Court had upheld in Buckley v. Valeo. Instead, he challenged the $123,200 aggregate limit on contributions during each two-year election cycle. Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion for four justices finding that (1) the aggregate limits did not prevent circumvention of the base limits in any meaningful way, and (2) the limits were not “closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgement of [First Amendment] freedoms.” Justice Thomas, who would have overruled Buckley in its entirety, provided the fifth vote for the majority. 

The Federal Election Commission had defended aggregate limits by arguing that they operate hand-in-hand with base limits to prevent individuals from making base contributions to multiple candidates who, in turn, can re-contribute the money to other candidates, thus enabling money to flow from contributors to ultimate recipients in contravention of the base limits. The Court held that the aggregate limits were “poorly tailored” to this concern because (1) post-Buckley laws now provide “an intricate regulatory scheme” to track and monitor the source and destination of base contributions, and (2) recipients of contributions have “scant interest” in paying them forward. In short, the scenario of base limit circumvention the Government offered to support the laws constituted either illegal or implausible behavior. The Court reasoned that Congress could have addressed the core concern and minimized the laws’ impacts on free speech through greater restrictions on transfers, stricter disclosure requirements, or tighter control of earmarking.