McConnell v. Federal Election Commission


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Significance: In what was a review of the Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act's limits on contributions to political parties.

In 1974, Congress amended federal election campaign laws by limiting the amount that citizens could contribute to political candidates. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court upheld the amendment as only a minimal restriction on speech, but it also held on free speech grounds that government could not put a limit on expenditures in campaigns. The federal law did not put any limits on “soft money,” which referred to donations to political parties for activities such as educating voters. In 2002, Congress enacted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA; also called the McCain-Feingold Act), which among its provisions, restricted the amount that could be contributed to national political parties, and it also prohibited advertisements by special-interest groups sixty days before an election. That same year, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the BCRA's limit on donations to political parties violated constitutional rights of free speech. In a complicated decision of three hudnred pages, however, the Supreme Court voted five to four to uphold the two main provisions of the federal law: the control of soft money and the time regulation on issue adds. On the soft-money issue, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens wrote that the restriction on free expression was minimal and that the limits furthered the government's legitimate interest in opposing both corruption and the appearance of corruption that resulted from large contributions. The dissenters argued that the majority had erred in not applying a “strict scrutiny” standard to the law. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the majority's decision was based on the fallacy that money is not speech. Justice Clarence Thomas characterized the decision as the most significant abridgment of free speech since the Civil War.