By Allen Thompson, Esq.
Today, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the limitations on the total amount of money an individual can contribute to the entire political process. McCutcheon v. FEC, 572 U.S. (2014), concerned the aggregate contributions an individual can make to all political candidates within a specified amount of time. The case did not address the limits to contributions to particular candidates. Writing for the Court, Justice Roberts broke the case down along the typical First Amendment analysis: (1) is contributing money to the political process protected conduct, i.e. a First Amendment issue; (2) does the Government have a compelling interest in limiting that conduct; and (3) if the Government has a compelling interest, did it narrowly tailor its limitation to address its interest?
The Court found that an individual does have a First Amendment right to contribute money to the political process. Noting that while
[m]oney in politics may at times seem repugnant to some . . . so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades [all examples from prior Supreme Court cases] . . . surely it protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.
Slip op., at 2.
Prior to the Court’s decision, once the aggregate limit was reached, the donor was prohibited from further contributions. In other words, the aggregate limits restricted the frequency with which a person may exercise his First Amendment rights to expression and association. The Court rightly held that the
Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.
Slip op., at 15.
The Court then analyzed the Government’s compelling interest, finding that preventing corruption in the political process was a compelling interest, at least so far as “corruption” was defined as quid pro quo contributions.
Campaign finance restrictions that pursue [other ends] . . . impermissibly inject the Government ‘into the debate over who should govern.’ And those who govern should be the last people to help decide who should govern,
wrote J. Roberts. Slip op., at 3.
The Court also found that the aggregate limits were not narrowly tailored. In other words, the aggregate limits were not closely enough related to preventing corruption to justify the infringement on First Amendment rights. In essence, the Court found that the aggregate limit ultimately restricts how many candidates the donor may contribute to and does nothing to prevent corruption. Justice Roberts wrote that
under the dissent’s view, it is perfectly fine to contribute $5,200 to nine candidates but somehow corrupt to give the same amount to a tenth.
Slip op., at 19. While the Court spent considerable time discussing the Government’s argument that an individual could circumvent the contribution limits to individual candidates by donating through other vehicles, it ultimately ruled that the current statutory restrictions on the total amounts an individual may contribute to any one candidate, committee, or PAC adequately protected against quid pro quo corruption.
In perhaps the most unsettling portion of the Opinion, Justice Roberts addressed the dissenting opinion and firmly rejected it. Roberts rightly dismissed the dissent’s troubling assertion that the “public’s interest” in “collective speech” could trump the free speech rights of the individual. Justice Roberts pointed out that the collective is the majority and that the majority can easily suppress minority speech by passing laws such as the one at issue here. Hence, the purpose of the Amendment in the first place (no pun intended). In refuting that view, J. Roberts wrote:
The First Amendment does not protect the government, even when the government purports to act through legislation reflecting ‘collective speech.’
Slip op., at 17.
While the Opinion is sure to upset many people, given the reaction to Citizens United four years ago, the ruling is firmly rooted in the core of the First Amendment’s protections. While acknowledging the corruption in politics and the worthwhile goal of preventing that corruption, the Court was able to see through the façade of the corruption argument and focus solely on the First Amendment issues at play: namely, that politicians cannot, after election, enact legislation to restrict others’ access to the political process. Politics is fraught with corruption – restricting citizens’ access to the arena will not increase it.
Prince Law Offices is dedicated to preserving the First Amendment rights of all individuals, as well as every one of our constitutionally protected rights. If you believe the government – be it local, state, or federal – has infringed upon your rights, call us at 888-313-0416.