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Law School Case Brief

McCutcheon v. FEC - 572 U.S. 185, 134 S. Ct. 1434 (2014)


The United States Supreme Court sees no need to revisit the distinction it made in Buckley v. Valeo between political contributions and expenditures and the corollary distinction in the applicable standards of review. Buckley held that the Government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance was “sufficiently important,” and the Court has elsewhere stated that the same interest may properly be labeled “compelling,” so that the interest would satisfy even strict scrutiny. Moreover, regardless whether it applies strict scrutiny or Buckley’s “closely drawn” test, the Court must assess the fit between the stated governmental objective and the means selected to achieve that objective. Or to put it another way, if a law that restricts political speech does not “avoid unnecessary abridgement” of First Amendment rights, it cannot survive “rigorous” review. 


Shaun McCutcheon contributed a total of $33,088 to 16 different federal candidates in compliance with the base limits that were embodied in 2 U.S.C.S. § 441a for each candidate.  However, he brought suit against the Federal Election Committee (FEC), claiming that the aggregate limits on political contributions that were embodied in § 441a(a)(3) violated his First Amendment rights because they prohibited him from contributing $1,776 to each of 12 additional candidates. 


Did the aggregate limits on political contributions that were embodied in § 441a(a)(3) violate McCutcheon’s First Amendment rights?




The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Although the Court had upheld "base limits" which limited the amount each individual was allowed to contribute to a particular candidate or committee in Buckley v. Valeo, and indicated in Buckley that aggregate limits would also be upheld, the Court was confronted with a different statute and different legal arguments at a different point in the development of campaign finance regulation, and the aggregate limits imposed by § 441a(a)(3) restricted an individual's right to participate in the political process while doing little, if anything, to target “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance in campaign financing.

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