View Full Version : Supreme Court Rules Against Vermont Campaign Finance Reform Law

06-26-2006, 06:53 PM
High Court Rejects Vermont Campaign Law


By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006; 5:50 PM

The Supreme Court today struck down a Vermont law that established the nation's strictest curbs on political campaign spending and contributions, ruling that the limits were so low that they violated candidates' free speech rights.

The court voted 6-3 to declare unconstitutional a 1997 Vermont law, called Act 64, that severely limited the amounts of money that candidates for state office could spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations and political parties could contribute to those campaigns.

The law, passed at the behest of Vermont's then-governor, Howard Dean (D), was aimed at eliminating corruption and the appearance of it from the state's political process. But it ran afoul of groups ranging from the Vermont Republican and Libertarian parties to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Vermont Right to Life Committee, which joined a number of politicians in suing the state on grounds that Act 64 violated constitutional freedoms of speech and association.

The high court did not go so far as to sweep aside a 30-year-old campaign finance precedent but essentially found that the spending and contribution limits in the Vermont law were too low.

"We hold that both sets of limitations are inconsistent with the First Amendment," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the court's lead opinion in the case, Randall v. Sorrell.

While the ruling's impact fell largely on Vermont, particularly with regard to the contribution limits, it could have broader implications, finance reform advocates said. With spending limits ruled out as unconstitutional, they said, reformers now are more likely to focus on other options, notably public financing of elections.

Breyer said in his opinion that Act 64 "burdens First Amendment interests by threatening to inhibit effective advocacy by those who seek election, particularly challengers." Among other problems, he wrote, the act's contribution limits "mute the voice of political parties" and "hamper participation in campaigns through volunteer activities."

While the justices understand that many campaign finance regulations impose certain burdens, the majority found that Act 64 "goes too far," Breyer wrote. "It disproportionately burdens numerous First Amendment interests, and consequently, in our view, violates the First Amendment."

The case produced six separate opinions, including Breyer's, which was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and joined in part by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Concurring opinions were written by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Alito.

Justice David H. Souter wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens.

"The findings made by the Vermont legislature on the pernicious effect of the nonstop pursuit of money are significant," and the Supreme Court should have deferred to them, Souter wrote.

"The limits set by Vermont are not remarkable departures either from those previously upheld by this Court or from those lately adopted by other states," Souter said.

Some of the justices who voted to strike down the Vermont law also wanted to overturn a 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that they blame for confusion in campaign finance rules. In addition, the respondents in the case asked the court "in effect to overrule Buckley," Breyer wrote.

But the principle of adherence to precedent prevailed, and the court ultimately declined to revisit the 1976 case, Breyer wrote, noting that "subsequent case law has not make Buckley a legal anomaly or otherwise undermined its basic legal principles."

The 1976 ruling drew a distinction between limits on contributions and those on spending. It said contributions to candidates' campaigns could be capped without limiting freedom of speech but that spending by candidates could not be restricted because that would curtail discussion of issues.

The Vermont law imposed mandatory limits on the amounts a candidate for state office could spend in a two-year general election cycle, meaning the primary plus the general election. The restrictions ranged from $300,000 for candidates for governor to as little as $2,000 for candidates for state representative.

Strict contribution limits, the lowest in the nation, barred any individual from donating more than $400 to a candidate for governor, lieutenant governor or other statewide office; more than $300 to a state Senate candidate or more than $200 to an aspiring state representative. Act 64 also limited to $2,000 the amount any individual could give to a political party during the two-year cycle.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute, a Boston-based group that supported Vermont's law, lamented the Supreme Court's ruling.

"Even while we watch elected officials being marched off to jail for corrupt activities, today's decision gives money an even larger role in elections," he said in a statement. "The decision marks a lost opportunity to end the arms race for campaign cash and make elections a contest of ideas rather than dollars, but the struggle for reform will continue. The Supreme Court upheld the poll tax twice before it was finally struck down, and today's decision likewise will not stand the test of time."

Comstock-Gay said in a telephone interview, however, that for now, "this case closes the door to spending limits," which he said have been "hugely popular" among campaign finance reform advocates. With that avenue shut off, and with many Americans still "very agitated" about recent political corruption cases, the ruling could "add extra energy" to efforts to reform the political process through public financing requirements, he said.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which pushed for passage of Act 64, said Vermont residents "spoke out loudly and clearly for reducing the influence of money in politics" but that the Supreme Court "turned a deaf ear."

He said in a statement, "Instead of allowing us to level the playing field, the justices have pushed average folks to the sidelines and preserved a clear path to power for wealthy donors. The First Amendment was never intended to give wealthy special interests a stranglehold on elections, but this ruling undermines Vermont citizens and all Americans who are working to protect the integrity of their democracy and participate equally in the political process."

Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that while the center disagrees with the decision, it sees some potentially positive consequences. The Brennan Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case supporting Vermont's law.

"I think it will give useful guidance to state legislatures that are looking at contribution limits," Goldberg said. She said she doubted that any existing contribution limits in other states would fall as a result of the ruling, which did not find such limits inherently unconstitutional.