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SCOTUS's First Big Case of the Term: Campaign Contribution Limits

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By William Peacock, Esq. on September 13, 2013 4:20 PM

The Supreme Court will finally return in less than a month, and when it does, it will start the next term with McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that many are already calling Citizens United II for its possible impact on campaign finance reform.

The facts of the case are simple. According to the FEC, Alabama resident Shaun McCutcheon would like to give large amounts of money to the Republican National Committee (RNC). The RNC, quite understandably, would like to accept this money. Alas, there are biennial limits (inflation-adjusted) on individuals' contributions: $46,200 for candidates and $70,800 for other contributions, or $117,000 total for 2011-2012.

Buckley v. Valeo - Limits Constitutional

The Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1976's Buckley v. Valeo decision, where it held that limits on contributions, while implicating First Amendment interests, were a constitutional means of achieving an equally important governmental interest: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Of course, Buckley addressed political contributions, not expenditures. Limits on independent expenditures are subject to strict scrutiny, while contributions are given the lesser "equally important interest" standard of Buckley.

Lower Court Declines to 'Anticipate' SCOTUS's Agenda

McCutcheon argued that the biennial limits were expenditure limits, and not contribution limits, the district court explained that,

"The difference between contributions and expenditures is the difference between giving money to an entity and spending that money directly on advocacy. Contribution limits are subject to lower scrutiny because they primarily implicate the First Amendment rights of association, not expression, and contributors remain able to vindicate their associational interests in other ways."

The court, while acknowledging that "the constitutional line between political speech and political contributions grows increasingly difficult to discern," especially in the wake of Citizens United, "we decline Plaintiffs' invitation to anticipate the Supreme Court's agenda."

The Importance of McCutcheon

Politico, while acknowledging that the court has not struck down a federal contribution limit since 1976, calls this a "decision of great consequence to American democracy," and warns of the consequence of a "return to the system of legalized bribery that played a major role in the Watergate scandals."

Meanwhile, USA Today notes that Chief Justice John Roberts will almost certainly be the swing vote here, noting that he has five times in a row voted ruled against restrictions on political speech, yet has not touched long-standing limits on federal contributions.

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