California Medical Association, et al. v. Federal Election Commission
Decided on June 26, 1987; 453 US 182

Limit on political contributions challenged as violation of free speech


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment, 5th amendment, political speech, equal protection

B. Legal Question Presented:

Do provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, limiting the amount an unincorporated association can contribute to a multicandidate political committee, violate the First Amendment?

A. Background:

Appellants, the California Medical Association (CMA) is a not-for-profit unincorporated association of approximately 25,000 doctors residing in California.  In 1976, CMA formed the California Medical Political Action Committee (CALPAC).  CALPAC is registered as a political committee with appellee, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and is subject to the provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act relating to multicandidate political committees.  One such provision prohibits individuals and unincorporated associations such as CMA from contributing more than $5,000 per calendar year to any multicandidate political committee such as CALPAC.  A related provision of the Act makes it unlawful for political committees such as CALPAC to knowingly accept contributions exceeding this limit.

On April 19, 1979, the FEC found probable cause to believe CMA had violated the Act by making contributions exceeding $5,000 to CALPAC, which CALPAC had accepted. When the FEC was unable to reach a conciliation agreement with CMA and CALPAC, the Commission filed suit against them on May 22, 1979, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The California Medical Association subsequently filed a declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to challenge whether the statutory contribution limitations were constitutional. The District Court ruled in favor of CMA and CALPAC, stating the contribution limitations violated the First Amendment.  On appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the claims, and upheld the $5,000 limit on annual contributions by unincorporated associations to multicandidate political committees. Appellants then sought review by the US Supreme Court and the Court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Rick C. Zimmerman argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs was David E. Willett. Charles N. Steele argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief was Kathleen Imig Perkins.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"Limitations on contributions to small political committees that engage solely in independent expenditures over which contributors retain substantial control violate the First Amendment... Because section 441a(a)(1)(c) is unconstitutionally overbroad, the decision below must be reversed." –ACLU brief in California Medical Association, et al. v. Federal Election Committee "Section 437h should not be construed to disrupt the commission's exclusive enforcement authority or the orderly processes of federal courts... The provisions challenged by appellants violate neither the First Amendment nor the Fifth Amendment." –Appellee brief in California Medical Association, et al. v. Federal Election Committee
Opposing Side
Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging reversal.
Louis R. Cohen, A. Stephen Hut, Jr., Roger M. Witten, Kenneth J. Guido, Jr., and Ellen G. Block filed a brief for Common Cause as amicus curiae urging affirmance.

"If the First Amendment rights of a contributor are not infringed by limitations on the amount he may contribute to a campaign organization which advocates the views and candidacy of a particular candidate, the rights of a contributor are similarly not impaired by limits on the amount he may give to a multicandidate political committee, such as CALPAC, which advocates the views and candidacies of a number of candidates...

Appellants' claim of unfair treatment ignores the plain fact that the statute as a whole imposes far fewer restrictions on individuals and unincorporated associations than it does on corporations and unions. Persons subject to the restrictions of 441a(a)(1)(C) may make unlimited expenditures on political speech; corporations  and unions, however, may make only the limited contributions authorized by 441b(b)(2). Furthermore, individuals and unincorporated associations may contribute to candidates, to candidates' committees, to national party committees, and to all other political committees while corporations and unions are absolutely barred from making any such contributions. In addition, multicandidate political committees are generally unrestricted in the manner and scope of their solicitations; the segregated funds that unions and corporations may establish pursuant to 441b(b)(2)(C) are carefully limited in this regard... The differing restrictions placed on individuals and unincorporated associations, on the one hand, and on unions and corporations, on the other, reflect a judgment by Congress that these entities have differing structures and purposes, and that they therefore may require different forms of regulation in order to protect the integrity of the electoral process. Appellants do not challenge any of the restrictions on the corporate and union political activity, yet these restrictions entirely undermine appellants' claim that because of 441a(a)(1)(C), the Act discriminates against individuals and unincorporated associations in the exercise of their First Amendment rights… We conclude that the $5,000 limitation on the amount that persons may contribute to multicandidate political committees violates neither the First nor the Fifth Amendment. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore affirmed."
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Marshall, T. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Powell, L.  Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.