By Amy Howe
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from SCOTUSblog ? Plain English / Cases Made Simple.
Back in October, when the Court heard oral argument in a challenge to the overall caps – known as “aggregate limits” – on how much an individual can contribute to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees, there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense. Given the Court’s recent campaign finance rulings, it seemed clear that a majority of the Justices would vote to strike down at least some of the caps; the only real question was whether they would strike down them all.
Today we got our answer from the Court, and it was a decisive “yes”: all of the aggregate limits must go. Let’s talk about today’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in Plain English.
As I explained in my preview of the case in October, there are (at least until today) two kinds of limits on campaign contributions. The first is what is known as the “base limits” – the maximum that you can contribute to a candidate, political party, or political action committee in an election. The aggregate limits are the second kind: in a two-year period known as an “election cycle,” you can donate no more than $48,600 to all candidates combined and no more than $74,600 to political parties and political action committees.
An Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon went to court to challenge the aggregate limits. He didn’t ask for the right to give more money than the base limits to any particular candidate; instead, he wanted to give money to many more candidates, but the aggregate limits prohibit him from doing so. That, he argued, violates his free speech rights under the First Amendment.
Although a lower court disagreed with McCutcheon, he found a more receptive audience in the Roberts Court, which has consistently voted to overturn campaign finance regulations. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the Court, which was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel A. Alito. (Justice Clarence Thomas wrote his own opinion saying the Court should go even further, but the Chief Justice’s opinion is the controlling one.)
The Chief Justice’s opinion began by reiterating that “[t]here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders” – including by making campaign contributions. The First Amendment protects that right, the opinion explained, but Congress can put …read more