From: Tom Vaughn
Subject: Summary of recent United States Supreme Court opinion on campaign finance
Date: Fri Apr 04 16:20:34 MDT 2014

Summary of recent United States Supreme Court opinion on campaign finance


As you have probably heard, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision on April 2, 2014, in relation to campaign finance (McCutcheon v. FEC, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 2391 (2014)). While this decision relates solely to federal campaign finance law, it provides guidance on the constitutionality of campaign finance regulation that has been considered by the Utah Legislature as recently as the 2014 General Session.


In McCutcheon, the court considered a challenge to a provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) that caps the aggregate amount of money that a donor may contribute to all candidates or committees. The aggregate limit provision prohibits an individual from contributing a total of more than $48,600 during an election cycle. Thus, if the individual donates $4,860 to each of ten candidates during an election cycle, the individual is prohibited from donating money to any other candidate during the election cycle. In a plurality decision (delivered by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Alito, with Justice Thomas concurring in the result), the court struck down the aggregate donation provision as a violation of the First Amendment. (A dissenting opinion was delivered by Justice Breyer, who was joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan.)


Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion reiterated the court’s position that base limits (i.e., limits on the amount of money a donor may contribute to any particular candidate or committee) are constitutional on the grounds that, although such limits constitute a “significant interference with protected rights of political association,” the limits address a “sufficiently important interest” and are “closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgement of associational freedoms.” (McCutcheon at 8, quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 25 and 29 (1976)).


The Federal Election Commission argued that the aggregate limits should be upheld, because they help prevent circumvention of the base limits provisions of FECA. The plurality opinion rejects this argument and discusses statutory protections already in place, and other protections that could potentially be put in place, to prevent circumvention of the base limits. The opinion indicates that aggregate limits significantly interfere with protected rights of political association and are not “closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgement of associational freedoms.” (McCutcheon at 8 and 9, quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 25 and 29 (1976)). The opinion is critical of the fact that aggregate limits create a scenario that prohibits a donor “from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of ten or more candidates, even if all contributions fall within the base limits Congress views as adequate to protect against corruption” (McCutcheon at 11, emphasis added).


The opinion states that campaign finance regulation must target “‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance” and may not be used to “‘level the playing field,’ or to ‘level electoral opportunities,’ or to ‘equaliz[e] the financial resources of candidates.’” (McCutcheon at 5 and 13, citations omitted). The opinion further recognizes that “the Government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access.” (McCutcheon at 13, citing Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, 360 (2010)).


The opinion speaks favorably of using disclosure requirements to minimize the potential abuse of the campaign finance system. Specifically, the opinion states that contribution disclosure requirements may “‘deter actual corruption and avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity’” (McCutcheon at 21, quoting Citizens United) and that “disclosure often represents a less restrictive alternative to flat bans on certain types or quantities of speech.” (McCutcheon at 21.).


As always, if you have any questions regarding this recent United States Supreme Court decision, or any other matter relating to campaign finance, please contact Thomas Vaughn at one of the numbers listed below.


Eric Weeks, Deputy General Counsel


Thomas Vaughn, Associate General Counsel



Thomas R. Vaughn

Associate General Counsel

Office of Legislative Research & General Counsel

Utah State Capitol Complex

House Building, Suite W210

P.O. Box 145210

Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-5210