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High court strikes state's campaign fund limits

It found that Vermont's restrictions amounted to government censorship, violating the free speech of candidates.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2006


A bold experiment in Vermont that sought to address the often thorny connection between money and politics has come to an end.

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On Monday, the US Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the most controversial aspects of Vermont's campaign-finance law – including restrictions on the amount of money candidates for public office may spend in their campaigns.

The court said the restrictions amounted to a form of government censorship of political candidates in violation of the free-speech protections of the First Amendment.

The high court also struck down the state's limitations on the amount of money individuals may contribute to political candidates. The court ruled that the limits were too low.

The 6-to-3 decision is consistent with a 1976 landmark ruling in a case called Buckley v. Valeo in which the court struck down an attempt by Congress to limit campaign spending by candidates. The same 1976 ruling upheld the ability of government to restrict the amount of money contributed by political supporters to candidates.

The highly splintered opinion tracks the basic approach to campaign finance followed by the court over the past 30 years. But only three justices embraced it, although three others concurred in the judgment.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would overturn the Buckley v. Valeo precedent in favor of a regime more protective of speech. In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said he would overturn the Buckley precedent to enable government more leeway in establishing campaign-finance safeguards.

The decision marks a setback to campaign-finance reform advocates who had seen the opportunity to shift the paradigm of campaign finance away from a view that money is speech toward a focus on the quality of political competition.

"In many ways, it is a lost opportunity for the court to address the arms race in campaign funding," says Brenda Wright of the National Voting Rights Institute.

In invalidating the Vermont contribution limits, the court said it was leaving it to the Vermont legislature to rewrite its campaign-contribution regulations "in light of the constitutional difficulties we have identified."

How the justices see it

The court's splintered roster on the broader Buckley issue suggests no shortage of future litigation.

"We can find here no ... special justification that would require us to overrule Buckley," writes Justice Stephen Breyer in his plurality decision. "Subsequent case law has not made Buckley a legal anomaly or otherwise undermined its basic legal principles."

In a concurrence joined by Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas writes: "I continue to believe that Buckley provides insufficient protection to political speech, the core of the First Amendment."

He adds, "The illegitimacy of Buckley is further underscored by the continuing inability of the court [and a plurality here] to apply Buckley in a coherent and principled fashion."

In contrast, Justice Stevens, in a lone dissent, also says the time has arrived to overturn Buckley. But he cites entirely different reasons than those mentioned by Justice Thomas. "I am firmly persuaded that the Framers would have been appalled by the impact of modern fundraising practices on the ability of elected officials to perform their public responsibilities," he writes. "I think they would have viewed federal statutes limiting the amount of money that congressional candidates might spend in future elections as well within Congress' authority."