Aggregate Campaign Donation Caps for Individuals Struck Down by Sup. Ct.

By Brett Snider, Esq. on April 02, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that aggregate campaign contribution limits for individual donors are unconstitutional in light of the First Amendment.

According to The New York Times, Wednesday's 5-4 ruling is a "sequel" to the High Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, which struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

Now, thanks to the Court's decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, individuals are free to spend an unlimited aggregate amount on direct contributions to candidates, political parties, and political action committees.

Spending Is Political Speech

Ever hear the expression "money talks?" Well it seems to be becoming an ideological reality for the U.S. Supreme Court, which continues to hold that campaign contributions are protected under free speech principles.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court noted that the government could legitimately regulate political contributions as long as it did not place substantial restrictions on citizens' rights to engage in protected political expression by financially supporting the candidates of their choosing.

More recently, in Citizens United, the High Court determined that corporations could also exercise First Amendment rights to political speech by spending millions on political advertisements. If campaign contributions (i.e., money) are also protected political speech, then there must be a compelling interest in regulating them.

Chief Justice John Roberts found that the government does have a compelling interest: namely, in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption in the political process. However, Roberts argued that the kind of laws upheld in Buckley specifically dealt with "quid pro quo corruption," and that aggregate limits do not actually further the government's interest in fighting that type of corruption.

Since these aggregate limits -- set at $48,600 for donations to federal candidates and $74,600 for donations to political party committees per two-year election cycle, according to the Times -- fail to relate to a compelling government interest, the Court argued, they must be struck down in order to preserve McCutcheon's and others' rights to free political expression through political contributions.

Dissent Warns of Things to Come

In his dissent in McCutcheon, Justice Stephen Breyer writes that by removing aggregate limits on campaign contributions, wealthy individuals can now funnel "millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign" via direct donations and donations to PACs. Corruption, Breyer argues, takes many forms, and does not need to be quid quo pro to be dangerous to democracy.

This isn't just doomsaying. The 2012 election was greatly affected by the Citizens United ruling, and only time will tell how McCutcheon will affect the political landscape.

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