Go Beyond: Supreme Court Campaign Finance Decisions Timeline
Read the full story: Super PAC Mania
Browse a timeline of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance.
Cases mentioned in the feature story are represented in green.
United States v. Auto Workers
Justice Felix Frankfurter delivered the opinion for the majority, reversing the lower court's dismissal of an indictment against a labor union accused of violating a federal law barring corporations and labor organizations from making contributions or expenditures in conjunction with federal elections. The indictment charged the union with using dues to sponsor television commercials relating to the 1954 congressional elections.
Cort v. Ash
Stewart S. Cort, the chairman of Bethlehem Steel, used general corporate funds to run a series of advertisements refuting the anti–big business sentiments of 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. Justice Brennan delivered a unanimous decision of the Court, holding that the relevant statute offered no private cause of action against Cort in this instance.
Buckley v. Valeo
Buckley addressed whether electoral expenditure limits imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act violated freedom of speech rights protected by the First Amendment. The Court held that restrictions on individual contributions did not violate the First Amendment, but that restricting campaign expenditures did.
First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. delivered the majority opinion in favor of the First National Bank of Boston. The Court held that a state criminal statute barring certain expenditures by banks and corporations aimed at influencing votes on referendum proposals violated the First Amendment rights of those entities.
California Medical Association v. FEC
The Federal Election Committee initiated a civil enforcement action against the California Medical Association, an unincorporated professional association, for exceeding the $5,000 contribution limit to the political committee CALPAC. The Court upheld the FEC's right to enforce the limit.
FEC v. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a complaint against the FEC for allowing the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee to make campaign expenditures on behalf of national and state party committees. After the FEC dismissed the complaint, the Court reviewed the dismissal and held that the FEC had acted within its authority.
Brown v. Socialist Workers ’74 Campaign Committee
The Court held that disclosure provisions in the Ohio Campaign Expense Reporting Law, which required candidates report the names and addresses of contributors and recipients of disbursements, could not be constitutionally applied to the Socialist Workers Party, a minor political party that historically has been the object of harassment by government officials and private parties.
FEC v. National Right To Work Committee
The National Right to Work Committee asked 267,000 people to contribute to a separate, segregated fund that was to be used for political purposes during federal elections. The FEC determined that the action violated part of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 because those solicited were not members of the committee. A unanimous Court ruled in favor of the FEC.
Federal Election Commission v. NCPAC
The Democratic Party and the FEC argued that substantial intended expenditures by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) were violative of the Federal Election Campaign Act, which capped spending by independent political action committees in support of a publically funded presidential candidate at $1,000. The Court ruled in favor of NCPAC, with the majority holding that the relevant section of the act encroached on the organization's right to free speech.
FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life
In 1978, the nonprofit Massachusetts Citizens For Life (MCFL) spent nearly $10,000 printing and distributing a flyer titled “Everything You Need to Vote Pro-Life,” which included photos of several candidates for state and federal office who supported the group’s views. The FEC determined that the expenditure violated part of the Federal Election Campaign Act that barred distribution of such materials to the general public. The Court held that the provision was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech rights, when applied to nonprofits such as the MCFL.
Communication Workers of America v. Beck
Communication Workers addressed the use of union fees paid by nonmembers for lobbying or political events that were not related to collective bargaining activities. The Court held that funds paid to the union by nonmember employees could not be used “to support union activities beyond those germane to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.”
Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce
The Court ruled that the Michigan Chamber of Commerce could not run a newspaper advertisement supporting a candidate for the state legislature because it was subject to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which prohibited corporations from using treasury money in independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates running for state offices. The chamber of commerce was not, though, barred from making expenditures using money from a fund designated solely for political purposes.
The decision in Citizens United overturned part of ruling in Austin v. Michigan.
Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Committee
The Colorado Republican Party funded radio advertisements in April 1986 criticizing the individual likely to be the Democratic Party’s candidate of the state’s open Senate seat. The FEC asserted that the expenditure exceeded limits relevant to the type of election involved, and the Court ruled that imposing those limits would violate the Colorado Republican Party’s First Amendment rights. The Court noted that expenditure by the political party was independent and was not in coordination with a particular candidate.
Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC
In 1998, a candidate seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri state auditor challenged the state’s $1,075 contribution limit, arguing that he could only campaign effectively with more generous contributions. The Court ruled that Missouri’s statute did not violate the First Amendment and that Buckley v. Valeo is the authority for state limits on contributions to candidates.
FEC v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee
This case returned to an issue initially addressed to the Court in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC. The previous case did not deal with the constitutionality of congressional campaign limits when spent in coordination with a candidate. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the relevant restrictions were constitutionally sound with respect to candidate-specific expenditures. Justice Souter wrote for the majority, noting “[T]here is little evidence to suggest that coordinated party spending limits adopted by Congress have frustrated the ability of political parties to exercise their First Amendment rights to support their candidates.”
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002
Part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, usually referred to as the McCain-Feingold law, made it a crime to broadcast “electioneering communications” financed by corporations shortly before elections.
Federal Election Commission v. Christine Beaumont, et al.
This case addressed whether limits on political donations by nonprofit advocacy groups under the Federal Election Campaign Act violated the First Amendment. The Court held that limits imposed under the act did not violate the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff, an anti-abortion advocacy group.
McConnell v. Federal Election Commission
McConnell addressed the constitutionality of limits on “soft money”—contributions to a political party not for the purpose of supporting a candidate—set forth in The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, as well as the act's restrictions on the source, content, and timing of a political ad. The Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that those limits did not violate First Amendment rights. As with many of its decisions on campaign finance issues, the Court focused on whether the regulations were justified by the state's interest in preventing potential corruption arising from campaign donations.
- View a PDF of the Court opinion in this case
- Listen to the opinion announcement and read the transcript
Randall v. Sorrell
In Randall, the Court held that Vermont’s extremely strict campaign finance law violated the First Amendment. The Court held that Vermont’s $200 to $400 limits on contributions by individuals, political groups, and political parties were unconstitutionally low because they would impede the efficacy of a campaign.
Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life
This case examined whether the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act's ban on using corporate treasury funds for political advertisements 60 days before an election applied to issue-based advertisements. The Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that the restriction was unconstitutional when applied to ads that did not expressly support of or ague for the defeat of a candidate.
Davenport v. Washington Education Association
This case dealt with a Washington state law requiring unions to obtain permission from non-union members to use non-member fees for political purposes. The Court unanimously ruled that the law did not violate First Amendment rights.
Davis v. Federal Election Commission
Davis challenged a part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law known as the “Millionaire’s Amendment,” which raised the contribution cap for individuals running against self-financed candidates. The Court ruled 5-4 that the amendment violated the First Amendment rights of Jack Davis, a wealthy Democratic candidate running for New York’s 26th Congressional District.
Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc.
In 1998, Hugh Caperton sued the A.T. Massey Coal Company for failure to comply with the terms of a coal supply contract. When the judgment renderead by a West Virginia trial court was appealed, Caperton motioned for state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself because Massey’s CEO had donated $3 million to the justice’s campaign to win the seat. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that by refusing to recuse himself, Benjamin violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee
A common misunderstanding about Citizens United is that it introduced a novel idea: that corporate speech is entitled to First Amendment protection.
A second misunderstanding is that Citizens United allows direct corporate contributions to candidates. In reality, the decision addressed only “independent expenditures,” and “contributions” remain banned.
A third misconception, says Professor Nathaniel Persily, is that, as Obama put it, Citizens United opens the floodgates of corporate spending. The floodgates, Persily says, were already open.
Arizona Free Enterprise Club Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett
According to a 1998 Arizona law, candidates running for state office could accept public financing, which would provide an initial sum and additional funds to match amounts spent by privately financed opponents. The Arizona Free Enterprise Club filed suit in 2008 with the claim that the law caused privately financed candidates to limit spending in an effort to avoid triggering matching funds for their opponents. The organization alleged that this practice limited candidates’ freedom of speech. The Supreme Court agreed with the organization and ruled the law to be unconstitutional.