Earlier today, a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a constitutional challenge to the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (“FECA”) biennial aggregate contribution limits in McCutcheon v. FEC, No. 12-cv-1034 (D.D.C. Sept. 28, 2012).  Under FECA, an individual may contribute no more than $117,000 in the aggregate on federal elections in a two-year election cycle.  There are various complex sub-limits within that overall biennial limit.

Plaintiffs Sean McCutcheon, an Alabama resident, and the Republican National Committee challenged these aggregate limits under the First Amendment as being unsupported by a legitimate government interest and for being unconstitutionally low.

 As a preliminary matter, the panel declined to apply the more stringent “strict scrutiny” standard of review that the Supreme Court has recently applied to political expenditure limits, including in Citizens United.  Instead, the panel applied a more lenient standard, finding that contribution limits are valid if they are “closely drawn to match a sufficiently important interest.” 

 The panel denied plaintiffs’ First Amendment challenges, finding that the aggregate contribution limits were sufficiently tied to the government’s interest in preventing corruption.  Specifically, the court ruled that aggregate limits were necessary to prevent circumvention of FECA’s base limits—the maximum amount an individual may give to a specific entity, such as a candidate, political committee, or national party committee (the plaintiffs did not challenge the base limits in this case). 

 Having found that the aggregate limits were justified, the panel rejected plaintiffs’ claims that the aggregate limits are unconstitutionally low or overbroad.  The panel refused to question the specific limits imposed by FECA, finding that courts should defer to Congress unless there are “danger signs,” which the court determined are not present with respect to the aggregate limits. 

 The FEC’s victory before the district court is a setback to those who have thought the biennial limits to be unconstitutional, especially in the wake of the Citizens United decision.  But the court’s decision likely will be appealed, and the issue ultimately will be resolved by the Supreme Court.