Campaign Finance Cases Weighed

GOP attorney James Bopp Jr. called Vermont's spending caps
GOP attorney James Bopp Jr. called Vermont's spending caps "a direct restriction on candidate speech." (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Supreme Court returned to the battle over campaign finance yesterday, hearing oral argument on a Vermont law that sharply limits how much money state candidates can raise and spend.

It is the first political-money issue to come before the court since Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. replaced Sandra Day O'Connor, who had generally supported campaign finance laws against charges that they abridge free speech. Alito's views are less clear.

The three cases the court consolidated into yesterday's single argument are significant because part of the Vermont law, the limits on spending by candidates, were adopted to force the Supreme Court to revisit its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo . That precedent says that contribution limits are constitutional but spending limits are not.

A New York-based federal appeals court has ruled in Vermont's favor, but judging by the questions and comments yesterday, the Supreme Court is likely to come out differently -- and reject Vermont's invitation to reinterpret Buckley .

James Bopp Jr. an attorney for the state's Republican Party, which opposes the law, ran into almost no skeptical questioning as he called the spending caps "a direct restriction on candidate speech."

The most any justice would venture in favor of Vermont's spending caps, which range from $2,500 for state House candidates to $300,000 for gubernatorial candidates, was Justice John Paul Stevens's suggestion that the court might send the issue back to a lower court for more fact-finding.

Bopp argued against that, responding that "we are talking about speech that is at the core of the First Amendment."

Perhaps more surprising was the chilly reception the court gave Vermont's limits on contributions to candidates.

The state says the limits, which range from $200 per two-year election cycle for state House candidates to $400 for statewide candidates, are needed to avert the appearance that access to elected officials can be bought.

William H. Sorrell, Vermont's attorney general, told the court that "over 70 percent of Vermonters believe that corporations and wealthy individuals have undue influence" over state government.

In a Missouri case six years ago, the court upheld contribution limits ranging from $275 to $1,075. But most of the justices seemed concerned that Vermont's contribution caps are so low that they would hobble campaigns.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, normally sympathetic to campaign finance reform, expressed concern that a volunteer's donation of "coffee and free doughnuts" would count against the contribution limit.

"Why aren't these limits way too low?" he asked Sorrell.

Sorrell responded that the cost of campaigning in Vermont is much lower than in other states. The record in the case, he said, "shows that candidates can amass the resources necessary to run an effective race."

But David H. Souter, who wrote the court's opinion in the Missouri case, said he was concerned that the same Vermont contribution limits would apply to candidates whether or not they face a primary challenge. "You could get to the general election and be broke," he noted.

Alito remained mostly quiet during the one-hour hearing. His only question suggested that he was considering the effects of a possible ruling that would uphold the contribution limits but not the spending limits.

"Could candidates run effective campaigns" if the court did that? he asked Brenda Wright, an attorney for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which supports the law. That would be possible, Wright replied.

The cases are Randall v. Sorrell , No. 04-1530, Vermont Republican State Committee v. Sorrell , No. 04-1697, and Sorrell v. Randall , No. 04-1554. A decision is expected by July.

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