Major Campaign Finance Cases


Case materials and summaries of major campaign finance decisions, from the Supreme Court’s landmark 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo to recent decisions clearing the way for unlimited corporate spending and Super PACs. The Campaign Legal Center has been involved in every major case since 2003, including McConnell v. FEC

McCutcheon v. FEC (April 2, 2014)

The Republican National Committee and donor Shaun McCutcheon brought suit to challenge 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. On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the aggregate limits, holding that the aggregate limits did not meaningfully prevent circumvention of the base limits or otherwise prevent quid pro quo corruption or its appearance...

McComish (Arizona Free Enterprise) v. Bennett (June 27, 2011)

In August 2008, plaintiffs challenged the “matching funds trigger provisions” of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, which provided participating candidates with additional funds if a non-participating opponent or outside group spent above a certain threshold. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the “trigger provisions” violated the First Amendment rights of non-participating candidates and independent spenders... v. FEC (March 26, 2010)

In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the federal contribution limits as applied to “independent expenditure committees,” finding that the Supreme Court’s analysis in Citizens United required it to “conclude that the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to an independent expenditure group.” The court, however, upheld the political committee disclosure requirements as applied to such groups. These independent expenditure only committees are today commonly referred t to as “Super PACs.”...

Citizens United v. FEC (January 21, 2010)

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court on January 21, 2010 struck down the 60-year-old federal prohibition on corporate independent expenditures in candidate elections in Citizens United v. FEC. By a vote of 8-1, however, the Supreme Court, upheld the electioneering communications disclosure provisions that were enacted as a part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA)...

FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. (June 25, 2007)

In 2007, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that BCRA’s prohibition on corporate electioneering communications—defined as broadcast ads within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election that named a candidate and were targeted at the relevant voters—was unconstitutional as applied to ads that did not constitute express advocacy of the election or defeat of a candidate or its functional equivalent...

McConnell v. FEC (December 10, 2003)  

The lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 - eleven suits brought by more than 80 plaintiffs - were consolidated asMcConnell v. FEC. The defendants in the case were the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission; the Act's principal congressional sponsors - Senators McCain, Feingold, Snowe and Jeffords and Congressmen Meehan and Shays -were intervenor-defendants. The Legal Center 's attorneys were among the counsel to the congressional sponsors.  A three-judge trial panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a mixed decision on the law's constitutionality on May 1, 2003.  The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision on December 10, 2004 , upholding all key aspects of the Reform Act.

Beaumont v. FEC (June 10, 2003)

 In a 7-2 opinion delivered by Justice David H. Souter, the Court held that applying the direct contribution prohibition to nonprofit advocacy corporations is consistent with the First Amendment. The Court reasoned that it could not hold for NCRL "without recasting our understanding of the risks of harm posed by corporate political contributions, of the expressive significance of contributions, and of the consequent deference owed to legislative judgments on what to do about them." Justice Anthony M. Kennedy filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented, arguing that section 441b should have been subject to strict scrutiny and, under this standard, it could not stand.

Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (January 24, 2000)

In a 6-3 opinion delivered by Justice David H. Souter, the Court held that Buckley is the authority for comparable state regulation and, but that the federal limits approved in Buckley, with or without adjustment for inflation, do not define the scope of permissible state limitations. The Court held the Missouri statute not to violate the First Amendment. "Even without the authority of Buckley, there would be no serious question about the legitimacy of the interests claimed, wrote Justice Souter for the Court, "the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance." Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, voting to overturn Buckley as a violation of First Amendment speech rights.

Buckley v. Valeo (January 30, 1976)

In this complicated case, the Court arrived at two important conclusions. First, it held that restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment since the limitations of the FECA enhance the "integrity of our system of representative democracy" by guarding against unscrupulous practices. Second, the Court found that governmental restriction of independent expenditures in campaigns, the limitation on expenditures by candidates from their own personal or family resources, and the limitation on total campaign expenditures did violate the First Amendment. Since these practices do not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption that individual contributions to candidates do, the Court found that restricting them did not serve a government interest great enough to warrant a curtailment on free speech and association.

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