Summary of McConnell v. FEC
Relevant Facts: In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold bill) was passed. The bill legislated three things. First, the bill banned unrestricted donations, often times known as “soft money," given to political parties from wealthy benefactors or corporations. Second, it limited the amount of advertising that unions, corporations, and non-profit organizations could pay for and present up to 60 days before an election. Third, it restricted political parties’ use of their own funds for advertising for candidates, in what is often referred to as issue campaigning. The bill also contained the provision that in cases where these provisions were alleged to have been broken, an early federal trial and a direct appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States would be held, which would essentially circumvent the usual federal judicial process. Groups of individuals, including political rivals such as Democrats, as well as Republicans like Mitch McConnell, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the matter, arguing that the bill violated Congress’ authority to regulate elections under Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution, and that regulations pertaining to advertising inhibit free speech rights protected by the First Amendment.
Issue: The legal questions presented were whether the Congress overreached their enumerated powers by banning “soft money” and legislating election processes to address the issues, and whether Congress’ limiting of political advertising violated First Amendment free speech rights.
Holding: The Supreme Court held that on both questions, Congress did not overstep its authority regarding regulation.
Majority Opinion Reasoning: The Court, which was split, ultimately reasoned that since most of the “soft money" provisions concerning money spent to get individuals to the polls rather than influencing how people vote via advocacy, the issue of the inhibition of free speech was minimal. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the electoral regulation legislated was appropriate because there was a legitimate governmental interest in preventing electoral corruption which could be grounded in who could pay the most for the most advocacy. The issue was one of elections not be co-opted by corporations, the wealthy, and the politically and financially prudent. In the case of the legislation, the regulations were an appropriate means of ensuring that neither politicians nor benefactors skirt campaigning laws.
Dissenting Opinion: Associate justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas presented dissenting opinions, all of which lambasted the majority opinion based on the assertion that the provisions seriously abridged free speech rights.
Conclusion: This case was significant because it provided a rubric in which both major political parties were forced to follow certain new rules to ensure the health of the democracy — at least that was the intent. This case is also significant because it provides the basis for the rulings in the 2010 Citizens United case in which the ruling in this case were partially reversed.