SCOTUS McCutcheon v. FEC Decision: Statement of J. Gerald Hebert, Legal Center Executive Director


The Court today abandoned any pretense of respecting Supreme Court precedent or Congressional expertise on matters of campaign finance when it struck down longstanding federal limits on aggregate contributions to candidates, parties and PACs.  To reach this decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court refused to follow its 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld the predecessor version of the aggregate contribution limits.  Once again, the Roberts Court exhibits its complete ignorance of political realities, or worse, chose to ignore those realities, in striking down laws written by Congress, which is intimately aware of the political corruption that will likely ensue in the wake of this decision.

The decision provides a roadmap for the wholesale evasion of the base contribution limits.  Candidates will solicit million-dollar checks, contributors will write them and the pay-to-play system in Washington will only become more direct.  The Roberts Court has exponentially increased the already-significant political influence of the very richest while further undermining the influence of the overwhelming majority of Americans who could not afford to write checks to politicians for even a fraction of the former aggregate contribution limit of more than $120,000 per election cycle. 

The nation’s Founders believed that Members of Congress would be representative of all Americans.  James Madison observed, for example, that the popular government they were forming would be one where our elected Members of Congress would be beholden to the many, not just the wealthy few.  The Court’s decision today is another blow from this Supreme Court majority to the principle that our democracy is a participatory one, where “We the People” get to decide who represents us. Instead, it’s now increasingly just “We the Wealthy”.

That today’s decision uses the First Amendment as a justification makes a mockery of the Constitution. The First Amendment was intended to facilitate the exchange of ideas and information among all of us and thereby encourage our informed participation in our government.  This decision turns the First Amendment on its head by enabling those with the biggest check books to gain even more influence and access to our elected officials.  In doing so, it lessens the relative political role of ordinary Americans in our election system.  It defies both logic and common sense to suggest that the wealthiest Americans are lacking in “speech opportunities” because of the aggregate contribution limits, which have been in place for decades. 

The fig leaf the Court used to justify Citizens United was the proposition that spending by outside groups could not possibly corrupt or even lead to the appearance of corruption.  It wasn’t true when they wrote it and now we have two election cycles worth of evidence to the contrary.  But today’s decision in McCutcheon did not even bother with a fig leaf.  An activist Court simply discarded decades of its own precedents and the common sense principle enunciated in the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley decision that that unchecked and direct political contributions give rise to indebted - and often corrupted - officeholders and candidates.  Once again the Roberts Courts has decided that its opinion is far more important than previous courts, the American public, and Congress when it comes to campaign finance and elections.

To read the brief filed by the Campaign Legal Center and a number of citizen, civil rights and watchdog organizations (from AARP to the League of Women Voters), click here.

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