Voting Rights and Democracy

McCutcheon v. FEC

McCutcheon v. FEC involved a First Amendment challenge to the constitutionality of campaign finance legislation that established aggregate contribution limits in federal elections.

Case Summary

Federal law permitted an individual to make a total of $123,200 in contributions in each two-year election cycle ($48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to parties and non-party political committees). The district court rejected Shaun McCutcheon’s challenge to the aggregate limits, and the Supreme Court noted probable jurisdiction.

On July 25, 2013, Constitutional Accountability Center filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of prominent constitutional law scholar Professor Lawrence Lessig, urging the Court to uphold the federal aggregate contribution limits. Our brief presented to the Court path-breaking research – involving review of every Founding-era discussion of corruption in debates over the Constitution – on the Framers’ understanding of corruption. This research, which had never before been presented to the Supreme Court, showed that the Framers understood corruption in institutional terms: their chief concern was preventing the nation’s new institutions of government from developing an “improper dependence” on outside forces. Our brief demonstrated that, under the Framers’ understanding of corruption, the federal aggregate contribution limits challenged by McCutcheon are constitutional. By preventing massive hard money contributions to candidates and their political parties, the aggregate limits aim to prevent the very sort of improper dependence on outside forces that the Framers wrote the Constitution to check.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in McCutcheon on October 8, 2013. Read CAC’s reaction to oral argument here. On April 2, 2014, in a sharply divided 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the aggregate contribution limits that an individual donor can make to candidates, parties, and political party committees. The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Scalia, Alito, and Kennedy, held that the aggregate limits “intrud[ed] without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise `the most fundamental First Amendment activities.’” Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, in which he agreed with the decision but noted that he would have gone further and eliminated the base limits. In a strong dissent joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Breyer argued that the majority’s ruling “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

Case Timeline

More from Voting Rights and Democracy

Voting Rights and Democracy
U.S. Supreme Court

Brnovich v. DNC; Arizona Republican Party v. DNC

In Brnovich v. DNC and Arizona Republican Party v. DNC, the Supreme Court is considering whether Arizona’s prohibitions on out-of-precinct voting and third-party ballot collection violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Voting Rights and Democracy
December 18, 2020

RELEASE: Census Memo A Clear Violation of the Constitution 

“The Court today is plainly wrong to avoid ruling on the merits of this case...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra
Voting Rights and Democracy
November 30, 2020

OP-ED: The Supreme Court Must Choose Between Trump and the Constitution in the Census Case

Critics of conservative originalism have charged that it is just a fancy word used to reach...
By: David H. Gans
Voting Rights and Democracy
November 3, 2020

Be Ready for a Lengthy, Vicious Struggle

The New York Times
How will the winning candidate piece together a victory in 2020? David Byler, a data...
By: David H. Gans, By Thomas B. Edsall
Voting Rights and Democracy
October 31, 2020

OP-ED: As Previous Generations Did, Make a Plan to Vote

The right to vote is one of our most cherished fundamental rights. It is guaranteed...
By: David H. Gans
Voting Rights and Democracy
October 30, 2020

Kavanaugh’s Wisconsin Opinion Flunks Originalist Test of Constitution’s Text and History

Take Care
On Monday night, the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, refused to reinstate a Wisconsin district court order...
By: Brianne J. Gorod, Charles Miller