High court strikes state's campaign fund limits

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

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

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."

The high-court decision stems from nearly seven years of litigation challenging Act 64, Vermont's 1997 campaign-finance reform law. The law took effect for only a brief time before it was enjoined pending the outcome of the lawsuits.

State lawmakers conducted 65 hearings and heard testimony from 145 witnesses about the difficulties and dangers of the campaign-finance system in Vermont.

The lawmakers concluded that electioneering in Vermont was becoming too expensive. Many ordinary Vermonters were being priced out of politics, and those involved in politics were spending increasing amounts of their time raising money for their next campaign.

Opponents said the campaign-finance restrictions were hindering candidates' ability to communicate with voters in violation of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and association.

In the past, such government campaign-finance restrictions have been justified in an attempt to prevent corruption of the political process by wealthy contributors literally buying favorable votes. The courts have also recognized that the government has a compelling interest in preventing the appearance of such corruption, even if actual quid pro quo corruption is not present.

Limits for candidates and donors

Vermont took this concern one step further. Rather than buying votes, large political contributions in Vermont were buying access and influence, state lawmakers said. Act 64 sought to reduce this access and influence by limiting both the intake and outflow of money in political campaigns in Vermont.

Under the law, a candidate for governor could spend no more than $300,000 during a two-year election cycle. The spending limit was $45,000 for other statewide offices. State senators were restricted to spending no more than $4,000 in their reelection campaigns. For state representatives, the limit was $2,000.

The law also restricted political contribution amounts at $200 to $400, the lowest level in the country.

It was all designed to reduce the power of money in the political process and foster a greater degree of equality among elected officials, candidates, and prospective candidates.

Opponents sued, claiming both the low contribution limits for donors and the expenditure limits for candidates had established a form of government censorship hindering the amount of political speech in Vermont. Act 64 also favored incumbents by making it more difficult for challengers to raise and spend large sums of money that might help them boost their name recognition among voters, opponents said.

They also argued that candidates must be free to choose how best to deliver their campaign message.

Vermont's rules are 'too restrictive'

In rejecting the contribution limits, Justice Breyer says the test is whether they are carefully drawn to achieve a compelling government goal while impacting a minimum amount of speech.

"Our examination of the record convinces us that, from a constitutional perspective, Act 64's contribution limits are too restrictive," Breyer writes. "We reach this conclusion based not merely on the low dollar amounts of the limits themselves, but also on the statute's effect on political parties and on volunteer activity in Vermont elections."

Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.

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