Campaign Contributions Case Hits SCOTUS for Oral Arguments

By Brett Snider, Esq. on October 08, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As the Supreme Court opens its doors to hear arguments in the new session, one of the first cases they will hear deals with campaign contributions, and may set the stage for further expansion of First Amendment freedom of expression.

The High Court on Tuesday will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, and SCOTUS will prepare to consider whether political contribution limits are just too much for the Constitution to bear.

What exactly is on the table in McCutcheon?

SCOTUS Week at FindLaw


Campaign Contribution Limits

McCutcheon deals with the Republican National Convention and plaintiff Shaun McCutcheon's frustration about exactly how much money the Federal Election Commission (FEC) will allow him to give every two years.

The amounts are adjusted by inflation each year, but for 2011-2012 it was:

  • $46,200 to candidates (in total)
  • $70,800 to "other" (in total)
  • Grand total $117,000

These aggregate limits prevent wealthy individuals from essentially spreading millions of dollars around a particular political party in a way that may upset most Americans ideas of fairness and equity surrounding elections.

The problem is that McCutcheon and the RNC believe that these contribution limits are actually just expenditure limits, which receive strict scrutiny under a First Amendment analysis.

What Level of Protection to Give Contributions

While it may not have intended to, the U.S. Supreme Court has visited this case upon itself after deciding the incredibly expansive Citizens United. By blazing a trail for corporations to protect their political expenditures, the Citizens United court galvanized corporate political interests to find just how far this logic could extend.

It may be a bit dramatic to say that McCutcheon is the reaping of what Citizens United had sewn, but SCOTUS needs to come correct on this political money/speech issue to avoid more confusion.

A crucial ambiguity in this case is what level of scrutiny to give the federal contribution limit law. It may seem facially to deal with "contributions" and be subject to lower scrutiny following Buckley v. Valeo. Then again, in a new Citizens United world of corporate speech, what do "individual" contributions really mean anyway?

Supporting those worried that the U.S. Supreme Court stands at a precipice, Politico warns that this could be the first striking of a federal contribution limit since the Nixon era, which could have drastic consequences for democracy in America.

Hopefully SCOTUS will tread lightly and listen carefully when McCutcheon debuts in its halls on Tuesday.

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