In McCutcheon v FEC Supreme Court strikes down aggregate campaign spending totals

In McCutcheon v FEC the Supreme Court today struck down limits on the total amount of money an individual may spend on political candidates as a violation of free speech rights. The decision is sure to increase the role of money in political campaigns.

In McCutcheon v. FEC the court ruled that an individual can contribute the candidate limit to as many candidates as they chooses, which was not allowed by the donation cap, currently $2,600.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the opinion striking down the aggregate limits of what an individual may contribute to candidates and political committees.

But in McCutcheon v FEC, Roberts said an individual should be able to contribute that much to as many candidates as he chooses, which was not allowed by the donation cap.

“An aggregate limit on how many candidates and committees an individual may support through contributions is not a modest restraint at all,” Roberts wrote. “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.”


Details about McCutcheon v FEV

With Roberts as chief justice, the Supreme Court has never upheld federal campaign finance laws from challenge, a series of decisions that culminated in Citizens United. That has proved to be a ruling deeply unpopular according to polls, and Roberts seemed to acknowledge that in his ruling.

“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts wrote. “If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Roberts. Justice Clarence Thomas provided the crucial fifth vote for overturning the limits, but said the others should have gone further to strike all contribution limits.

Breyer was joined in dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The aggregate totals that the court struck down in the case — McCutcheon v. FEC –imposed a $48,600 limit on contributions to candidates during a two-year election cycle, plus $74,600 total on giving to political parties and committees.

The base limits on contributions left unchanged by the ruling allow donations to candidates of $2,600 for both primary and general elections.

The decision provides a financial boost to political parties, which have lost their dominance with the rise of super PACs and other independent political groups that can raise unlimited sums.

See more on McCutcheon v FEC at the Washington Post.

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  1. says

    I thought this Volokh Conspiracy column (Breyer’s Dangerous Dissent) in the Washington Post was the most interesting reaction on McCutcheon v FEC I have found so far.

    It clearly shows the late 19th century irrationalist approach of Breyer’s instrumentalistic view of rights v the more 18th rationalist idea of natural right theory harking back to Locke or even Rousseau. For Breyer, rights are tools (the term Dewey would use) or instruments that are limited or defined rights allowed to citizens for the well being of the State and in this case discourse about government policy.

    Compare to the natural rights theory where rights are bestowed as a matter of personhood (limited as they can be by legal, societal mores or norms…i.e. no yelling ‘fire’ in the theater. But these natural rights purport to serve the individual and not the states.

    But what of the rights of institutions? This is the crux of Hobby Lobby, too. Are societal structures creatures of the state or merely a creation of contractural arrangements of sovereign individuals? Or do institutions have their own original office, authority and competence independent of State or Individual.

    The whole thing illuminates how deeply philosophical theory impacts everyday experience in terms of (at bottom) religious or faith-based worldview driving cultural formation. Which speaks as well to Hobby Lobby that argues Faith is just not something that can be contained in a one hour service one day a week, but colors all of life indelibly.

    Even for secularists. But they hate it and will fight tooth and nail when they are presented with the evidence of their own religiosity masquerading as “neutrality” in matters of defining what the “good life” is.