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SCOTUS McCutcheon Ruling: An Explainer

Posted in Our Blog on April 3, 2014


You’ve probably seen or heard about yesterday’s US Supreme Court ruling on campaign financing on TV or the newspaper. But we at Redmann Law have found that the news media doesn’t do a very good job of covering legal matters, so we’ve put together this explainer to break down the case in a way that hopefully makes it easier to understand.

The case is called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, and it was originally filed in Federal Court in the District of Columbia in 2012. The plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon, is an Alabama businessman who frequently makes campaign contributions to Republican political candidates. He filed suit because he thought the law limiting how much money an individual can contribute to political candidates per year is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. These limits change every year; in 2013, no single person could contribute more than $123,200 total to candidates and committees; with a limit of $2600 to a single candidate and $48,600 for all candidates combined, a donor could “max out” by giving the full amount to 18 candidates.

The Federal Election Commission is the named defendant in the lawsuit. Created in 1974, it’s the government agency in charge of regulating campaign financing. In response to McCutcheon’s lawsuit, the FEC filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the case should be thrown out of court due to lack of merit. The Court agreed with the FEC and granted its motion; McCutcheon appealed his case to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is the least understood of our three branches of federal government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial), especially in popular media. There are many reasons for that, starting with the fact that it conducts its business mainly behind closed doors (There is no CSPAN for the Court, although audio recordings of oral arguments are available to the public for free online.). Unlike the president and Congress, its members aren’t elected, and don’t have to make themselves available to the public in the same way elected officials do. And most importantly, the Court deals with complex legal issues and speaks in legalese that seems foreign to most people. But at its core, the Supreme Court is easy to understand: The Court consists of nine justices (a.k.a. judges), each of whom is appointed by the president, and each of whom serves for life. When a case is appealed to the Supreme Court, the Court gets to decide whether or not to accept it; only a select number of cases are heard by the Court every year, and successfully bringing a case before the Court is a lengthy and difficult process. The Court agreed to accept McCutcheon v. FEC in 2013, and oral arguments in the case took place on October 8.

After oral arguments, the nine justices usually take time to continue their debate in private. Decisions are reached on a simple majority basis; once a decision is reached, opinions are written-the Chief Justice assigns who writes the Court’s opinion, unless he has voted against the ruling, in which case the assignment is made by the most senior justice in the majority. In McCutcheon, the justices voted 5-4 in favor of the plaintiff, in effect eliminating the campaign contribution limits relevant to the case. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito voted in the majority, with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan in the minority. Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the opinion writing to himself, and published his ruling on April 2, 2014; Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissenting opinion.

The reaction to this decision has been largely negative, with many decrying the expanding influence of money in American politics. Public advocacy group Public Citizen went so far as to call it, “…a devastating blow at the very foundation of our democracy” in its response to the ruling.

Some have countered that this decision won’t have much of a practical impact because it doesn’t affect many voters. But, as legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin points out in his reaction piece, “…this ruling will affect relatively few campaign contributors. In the most recent cycle, fewer than six hundred donors maxed out to candidates. So why is the case important? Because the language of Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion suggests that the Court remains committed to the project announced most prominently in the Citizens United case, four years ago: the deregulation of American political campaigns.” Toobin goes on to add, “Every Chief Justice takes on a project… for John Roberts, the project will be removing the limits that burden wealthy campaign contributors.”

This case has been compared to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruling from 2010 that eliminated limits on how much corporations and labor unions could spend in support of political candidates (Though it kept the limit on how much they could directly contribute to the candidates; corporations can work around this rule by donating to political action committeese that campaign for a candidate without actually working for that candidate.). Toobin argues that campaign finance reform is Roberts’s major agenda, and that with Citizens United and now McCutcheon, the Supreme Court is chipping away at the laws restricting campaign contributions.

Only time will tell what political campaigns will look like in the wake of these landmark cases (and cases that still may come). The effects of Supreme Court rulings can be drastic, but it is often many years before their consequences can be clearly seen.