McConnell: KTB American Government and Civics Series
McConnell v. FEC (2003) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
McConnell v. FEC (2003)
Passed in early 2002, the key provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (the so-called McCain-Feingold bill sometimes referred to as BCRA) were:
- a ban on unrestricted (“soft money”) donations made directly to political parties (often by corporations, unions, or wealthy individuals) and on the solicitation of those donations by elected officials
- limits on the advertising that unions, corporations, and non-profit organizations can engage in up to 60 days prior to an election
- restrictions on political parties’ use of their funds for advertising on behalf of candidates (in the form of “issue ads” or “coordinated expenditures”).
The bill also contained an unusual provision providing for an early federal trial and a direct appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, by-passing the typical federal judicial process.
In May a special three-judge panel struck down portions of the Campaign Finance Reform Act’s ban on soft-money donations but upheld some of the Act’s restrictions on the kind of advertising that parties can engage in. The ruling was stayed until the Supreme Court could hear and decide the resulting appeals.
McConnell Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Does the “soft money” ban of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 exceed Congress’ authority to regulate elections under Article 1, Section 4 of the United States Constitution and/or the 1st Amendment’s protection of the freedom to speak?
A: No. The decision banned the use of soft money by national party committees and by state and local parties affecting federal elections. Also, with many exceptions, federal candidates or officeholders were banned from raising or using “soft” money in federal elections.
Q: Do regulations of the source, content, or timing of political advertising in the Campaign Reform Act of 2002 violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause?
A: No. The court required political committee to file detailed financial reports, restricted corporate and union funds, and treated non-candidate expenses coordinated with a candidate as indirect contributions. It mandated that payments coordinated by a candidate or party for election communications be treated as contributions/expenditures to/by that candidate or party. Under the First Amendment, political parties choosing between coordinated and independent expenditures after nomination is unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the “lowest charge” rule imposed on broadcasters prior to primary or general elections. The court dismissed Adams plaintiffs for lack of standing to challenge amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, and for lack of standing to challenge the so-called “millionaire provisions” triggered when an opponent spends a pre-determined amount of personal funds.
There must be public disclosure of payments for electioneering communications. The prohibition on minors making contributions to candidates or to political parties was deemed unconstitutional. The Court avoided the standing of the intervenor-defendants because the Federal Election Commission held positions identical to them. Finally, broadcasters were required to keep publicly available records of politically related broadcasting requirements.
5-4 decision ruling speech in the form of soft money (register and increase voters) is less protected than campaign expenditures, and corruption or appearance of corruption resulting from large financial institutions is a legitimate government interest as those institutions could easily circumvent the law. This applied to state elections with federal candidates allowing state legislatures to make their own laws for state and local elections.