U.S. Supreme Court Finds Aggregate Limits on Federal Campaign Contribution are Unconstitutional

by Bracewell LLP

On April 2, 2014, the United States Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that aggregate contribution limits, those limits placed on an individual’s overall direct contributions during a two-year election cycle, were unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment. The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536 (U.S. April 2, 2014), is the latest case in which the Supreme Court has loosened federal regulation of campaign contributions.

In a fractured decision, Chief Justice John Roberts authored a plurality opinion that struck down the aggregate limit as a “mismatch” between the government’s goal of curbing corruption and its chosen means of imposing an aggregate limit. Although the government has a valid interest in limiting quid pro quo corruption between contributors and elected officials, the Court explained, an aggregate limit imposed across all candidates does not limit the risk of corruption enough to justify the way it significantly limits the right to support candidates in an election. In the face of core First Amendment guarantees, the aggregate limit could not survive because it was not “closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms.” Slip opinion at 30 (citation omitted).

The Chief Justice was joined by three of his colleagues: Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to say that he would both strike down aggregate limits and overturn key Supreme Court precedent sanctioning a wide array of campaign finance restrictions.

The Dissent
Writing for the four Justices in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that aggregate campaign contribution limits had been previously held to be constitutional and that the reversal of existing precedent will come at a grave cost to the U.S. political system. In his view, the decision of the plurality “undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.” Slip opinion at 30 (Breyer, J., dissenting). Justice Breyer was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Unchanged Rules
Prior to today’s decision in McCutcheon, campaign contributions were subject to two key limitations. The first limit, which remains intact, is the base limit on individual contributions to a single campaign, party committee, or political action committee. That limit remains unchanged, thus there is still a limit of $2,600 that an individual may contribute to a candidate for each election in the two year election cycle. As a result, one may contribute $2,600 for a primary election, $2,600 for a general election, and an additional $2,600 if there is a runoff election. Limits on contributions to other committees may be seen on the below chart.

In addition, the decision has no impact on the operation of a Super PAC, otherwise known as an “independent expenditure-only committee.” Nor does the decision permit corporations to make contributions to federal candidate committees.

New Rule
The limit that was struck down today restricted the overall amount individuals can contribute to election campaigns during a given two-year election cycle. Those aggregate limits were most recently set at $48,600 for federal candidates and $74,600 for other political committees, including national and state party committees, for an overall limit of $123,200 per two-year cycle. As such, prior to this decision a person could give the maximum base contribution of $5,200, for both a primary and a general election, to a maximum of nine federal candidates, whereas now a person can contribute to all federal candidates if she so desires. Similarly, an individual may now contribute to as many PACs as desired, including state and federal committees, such as the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, as long as each contribution is within the base limit currently set at $32,400 for the national party committees.

In viewing the below chart from the Federal Election Commission, the box in the upper right corner, under Special Limits, has been eliminated. All the other listed limits continue to be the federal legal limits.

Kedar Bhatia, is an associate at the firm in the Litigation and White Collar and Corporate Investigations Groups (pending admission to the New York bar). Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Bhatia was co-author of an amicus brief filed at the Supreme Court in the McCutcheon case.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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