SCOTUS Brief Defends Aggregate Contribution Limits to Prevent Return of Million Dollar “Soft Money” Donors


Today, the Campaign Legal Center filed an amici brief in the U.S. Supreme Court defending the federal aggregate contribution limits and warning that invalidation of the limits would herald a return to the abuses of the “soft money” era that were outlawed by the McCain-Feingold Act and held corruptive by the Supreme Court in 2003.  Absent the challenged limits, individual donors could circumvent the base contribution limits by contributing hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in “limited” contributions to a huge number of candidates, party committees and PACs each election cycle. 

The Legal Center’s Executive Direct, J. Gerald Hebert, predicted that theMcCutcheon case will be carefully watched by the American people to see if the Supreme Court continues down the dangerous road of overturning common sense campaign finance rules aimed at curbing big money interests from buying politicians.   “In recent years, the Supreme Court has done enormous damage to its institutional interests by handing down decisions that overturn decades of legal precedent and that are harmful to our democracy,” Hebert observed.  “Its decision in the Citizens United case, for example, set the stage for big money to pour into our elections and put our democracy on the auction block to the highest bidders.  Its recent Voting Rights Act decision, devoid of legal reasoning and casting aside nearly fifty years of legal precedent, was another damaging decision.  The Court’s conservative majority looks more and more like a mini-legislature than a judicial branch of government.” 

Hebert added: “It is no wonder that the Court’s reputation among the general public has steadily declined in recent years to its current level of 34% – even below that of the Presidency.  Americans no longer have confidence that the Court can be fair and impartial.  The McCutcheon case presents the Court with a clear choice: will it issue another decision doing more damage to its reputation and undermining our democracy, or will it issue a decision that upholds decades of common sense contribution limits on those who would use their wealth to buy politicians’ votes?” 

A number of citizen, civil rights and watchdog organizations – from AARP to the League of Women Voters – joined the Legal Center in signing onto the brief that outlined the strong governmental interest in preventing the corruption and appearance of corruption inherent in any return to a system of six- and seven-figure solicitations and contributions.  

The challenge was brought by the Republican National Committee (RNC) and contributor Shaun McCutcheon.  Despite clear Supreme Court precedent upholding aggregate contribution limits, the plaintiffs-appellants in McCutcheon v. FECchallenge both the $74,600 aggregate limit on contributions to non-candidate committees and the $48,600 aggregate limit on contributions to candidate committees in a two-year election cycle.

“Striking down the aggregate contribution limits would allow candidates to solicit, and each donor to give, contributions totaling over $1 million per election cycle.  This would open the door to exactly the type of corruption, or at the very least the appearance of corruption, that the Supreme Court cited in upholding the original aggregate contribution limits in Buckley v. Valeo,” said Tara Malloy, Campaign Legal Center Senior Counsel.  “But this suit asks the Court to ignore long-settled precedent and the realities of political fundraising and to believe that politicians are less corruptible and the public is more confident in the integrity of their elected officials than they were in the 1970s—a notion that does not pass the laugh test.  An adverse decision in this case would usher in a new age of rampant influence-buying unmatched by any other period following the Watergate scandal.”

The brief filed by Campaign Legal Center and the other organizations emphasized that if the aggregate limits were invalidated, an individual could contribute $5,200 toward every single House and Senate candidate of the donor’s preferred party, $32,400 to each of that party’s three federal party committees, and $10,000 to each of that party’s fifty state committees for a total of $3.6 million in a two-year election cycle.  The total would be further increased by as many $5,000 contributions to PACs as an individual chose to make.

In September of 2012, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia concluded that the aggregate limits are justified, and rejected the arguments of the plaintiffs that the limits were unconstitutional.  The Legal Center’s brief in the lower court in support of the limits was cited in the court’s opinion. 

The groups signing onto the brief filed by the Legal Center today included AARP, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, The League of Women Voters of the United States, Progressives United and Public Campaign.

To read the brief filed by the Campaign Legal Center and the other organizations, click here.

To read the District Court's decision upholding the aggregate contribution limits, click here.