Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)
Significance: Contribution limits are constitutional; expenditure limits are not.
Summary: Any discussion of campaign finance-related Supreme Court decisions begins with Buckley, which represents the court’s reaction to the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1971. After Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to (1) limit and require disclosure of contributions, (2) limit expenditures, and (3) mandate participation in a publicly financed presidential election program, both Republicans and Democrats filed suit claiming these provisions violated First Amendment free speech protections and Fifth Amendment due process guarantees. The court agreed in part, striking down limits on expenditures, prohibiting mandatory participation in public financing programs, upholding the FECA disclosure requirements and allowing limits on contributions. These contribution limits were upheld, according to the court, because they act as a deterrent to quid pro quo corruption wherein contributors to campaigns are given preferential treatment because of their financial assistance, or the appearance of corruption. Buckley established the principle that political money is speech, because “virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society require the expenditure of money.” After this case, many states implemented contribution limits in line with the federal limits outlined in the FECA, which would come under attack 24 years later in Nixon v. Shrink PAC. The full court opinion can be found here.
First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)
Significance: States cannot prohibit corporations from contributing money to ballot proposals.
Summary: When Massachusetts legislators prohibited corporations from donating to ballot initiatives that did not directly affect their businesses, First National Bank and other corporations filed suit. The court allowed corporations to make contributions to ballot initiatives, because “the inherent worth of the speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.”
Citizens Against Rent Control v. City of Berkeley, 454 U.S. 290 (1981)
Significance: There can be no contribution limits to campaigns supporting or opposing ballot measures.
Summary: A companion case to First National Bank, this case saw the court decide that state governments have no compelling interest in limiting speech, including money, about ballot measures. Recognizing that contribution limits help to limit quid pro quo corruption, the court ruled that “[w]hatever may be the state interest . . . in regulating and limiting contributions to or expenditures of a candidate . . . there is no significant state or public interest in curtailing debate and discussion of a ballot measure.” As a result, the California law that set contribution limits on ballot initiative campaigns was invalidated.
Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990)
Significance: Corporations must keep a separate account from which they can make political contributions, usually by establishing a PAC.
Summary: A challenge to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which barred corporations from using money from their own treasury to make political contributions, came before the court. The court upheld the Michigan statute because it was “precisely targeted to eliminate the distortion caused by corporate spending while also allowing corporations to express their political views.”
Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 377 (2000)
Significance: States can limit the amount of money that any one individual or group can contribute to a state campaign.
Summary: While the Buckley decision allowed the FEC to cap contributions at $1,000 to federal campaigns, the court remained silent about contributions to state campaigns. In 1998, Missouri legislators passed a statute setting the contribution limit for state campaigns at $1,075. Nixon, a candidate for statewide office in Missouri, challenged this statute, claiming it violated his freedom of speech and due process protections. The court disagreed, wary of the corruption “inherent in a regime of large individual financial contributions to candidates for public office.” The full court opinion can be found here.
McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, 540 U.S. 93 (2003)
Significance: This case was the first to recognize the link between “soft money” and the potential for corruption.
Summary: This case is the court’s reaction to the passage of the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002. BCRA imposed bans on “soft money” (money contributed to political parties for purposes other than supporting or opposing a candidate, such as to run voter registration drives), and placed limits on advertising by corporations and PACs immediately preceding an election. Because “there is substantial evidence to support Congress’ determination that large soft-money contributions to national political parties give rise to corruption and the appearance of corruption,” this provision of the BCRA was upheld. Later, in Citizens United, the court overruled the portion of McConnell that allowed prohibitions on corporate independent expenditures. The full court opinion can be found here.
Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230 (2006)
Significance: States cannot limit independent expenditures, and must ensure their contribution limits are high enough to enable the candidate to run an effective campaign.
Summary: Randall challenged a Vermont law that limited independent expenditures and set the strictest contribution limits in the country (allowing a maximum contribution of $400 for a gubernatorial campaign). The court affirmed its position on independent expenditures, ruling they do not directly affect campaigns or candidates and must be allowed as free speech. The court also struck down Vermont’s contribution limits as unconstitutionally low, saying they “prevent candidates from amassing the resources necessary for effective campaign advocacy.” As a result, states may not set their contribution limits so low as to make it difficult to run a campaign with all its related expenses.
Davis v. Federal Election Commission, 554 U.S. 724 (2008)
Significance: “Triggering” provisions found in many public financing statutes are unconstitutional.
Summary: Portions of the federal BCRA were challenged by a candidate for New York state Senate, who believed the disclosure requirements of the act infringed upon the First Amendment. Electing to finance his own campaign, Davis was required by the BCRA to disclose just how much money he intended to spend on campaigning. When this number crossed certain thresholds, Davis’ opponent was allowed to receive contributions in excess of the state’s limits. The court held that this provision “impermissibly burdens his First Amendment right to spend his own money for campaign speech.” Davis’ campaign was essentially a series of independent expenditures, and thus could not be limited and cannot trigger an increase in contribution limits for his opponent.
The elimination of this provision led many states to strip similar language from their public financing regulations, decreasing the attractiveness of these programs. The full court opinion can be found here.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)
Significance: States cannot place limits on the amount of money corporations, unions, or PACs use for electioneering communications, as long as the group does not directly align itself with a candidate.
Summary: The limits on advertising by corporations and PACs that helped frame the McConnell decision came into play again during the 2008 presidential campaign. When Citizens United, a conservative non-profit group with the purpose to restore government to citizens’ control, tried to run ads critical of Senator Hillary Clinton close to the 2008 Democratic primary, it was barred from doing so by the BCRA. The Supreme Court struck down provisions of the BCRA that prohibited corporations, unions, and PACs from making independent expenditures and election communications, as “the government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity.” Corporations and unions can spend unlimited sums of money on ads and other communications designed to support or oppose a candidate either on their own or through contributions to Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s,, but are still prohibited from contributing directly to federal candidates (Speechnow.org v. FEC). The full court opinion can be found here.
McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, 134 S.Ct. 1434 (2014)
Significance: States can place a limit on how much any individual or group contributes to any one campaign, but cannot impose aggregate limits on how much an individual or group contributes to all campaigns during an election cycle.
Summary: Another challenge to the FECA came in regard to aggregate contribution limits. While the FECA imposed a limit on how much individuals could contribute to any one candidate, individuals were able to donate to as many candidates as they pleased, provided they did not cross the aggregate threshold, set at $46,200 for the 2012 election cycle. Shaun McCutcheon, a businessman from Birmingham, Ala., challenged this limit as a violation of his freedom of speech. Chief Justice John Roberts and the majority agreed with McCutcheon, striking down the aggregate contribution limits. “Campaign finance restrictions that pursue other objectives [besides suppressing quid pro quo corruption] . . . impermissibly inject the government into the debate over who should govern.” The court ruled that there is not enough evidence that the ability to contribute to as many candidates as one pleases influences quid pro quo corruption in politics. In order to impose aggregate limits, states must be able to prove the link between contributions and corruption, which remains an extremely difficult task. The full court opinion can be found here.
These cases represent some of the most important campaign finance cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Any state or jurisdiction must also adapt to decisions rendered by state and local courts. The FEC posts in-depth information about these and other important campaign finance cases.
Federal Election Commission v. Ted Cruz for Senate, et al. (2021)
Significance: States cannot place a limit on the amount of post-election contribution funds that a campaign can use to repay a loan issued by a candidate to their own campaign.
Summary: After what was at the time the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, Ted Cruz brought suit with the FEC over section 304 of the BCRA, which limited the amount money candidates could use to repay loans to their own campaigns at $250,000. Cruz argued that the cap unduly burdened his First Amendment freedom of speech by limiting the amount of personal funding he could use to support his campaign. The court agreed, asserting that the provision did in fact burden speech by restricting newcomer candidates’ ability to raise funds quickly at the beginning of a campaign—a feat usually accomplished through self-funding. Because Section 304 raised a barrier to entry that “impermissibly limit[ed]” First Amendment rights, the government would need to provide a compelling interest for the cap. Because of the precedent established in other campaign finance cases like Buckley and Citizens United, the only type of interest compelling enough for the court to uphold the repayment cap would be the threat or the appearance of quid pro quo corruption. The court held this was not possible in this case because federal law already capped contribution limits at $2,900 per individual, preventing any sizeable donation that would reasonably lead to a political favor. Further still, disclosure laws required the reporting of any sizeable donation, meaning any contributions of $50 or more. The full court opinion can be found here.
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