Justices Reject Vermont's Campaign Finance Law

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Supreme Court struck down Vermont's strict limits on campaign contributions and spending yesterday, in a splintered ruling that left intact the constitutional basis of current campaign finance laws but may make it difficult to put new curbs on money in politics.

Vermont's law, approved in 1997, was the toughest in the country with regard to setting limits on the amount individuals and parties may contribute to campaigns and, perhaps more significantly, on how much candidates may spend on their campaigns.

The measure was enacted as a direct challenge to Buckley v. Valeo , the 30-year-old Supreme Court ruling that has generally been read to permit limits on campaign contributions, for the purpose of stopping corruption or apparent corruption -- and to bar limits on candidates' spending as a violation of free speech.

A ruling in Vermont's favor would have opened the door to state and federal restrictions on spending by candidates. But, in a 6 to 3 vote, the justices opted to reject the state's law.

Although the court said the government retains the power to restrict contributions, for the first time it declared specific limits to be too low -- perhaps opening the way to challenges on some long-standing restrictions, such as the 30-year-old $5,000 contribution limit for political action committees.

"This is a setback for reformers who were hoping to expand what the government could regulate," said Jan W. Baran, a former counsel for the Republican National Committee. "This is the first time the Supreme Court has struck down a contribution limit -- on the grounds that it was too low."

But Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an organization that lobbies for campaign finance laws, cautioned against interpreting the ruling as a green light for opponents of contribution limits to challenge existing rules as too restrictive.

The court "has not disturbed the constitutional doctrine under which we've been winning cases for years," Wertheimer said. "It's a status quo opinion. It preserves the decision upholding the constitutionality of the soft money ban, and of prohibitions on corporate and labor union contributions and expenditures, among others."

Predicting the case's impact is difficult because the court produced no majority opinion yesterday, but instead split three ways.

The court's two newest members, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined Justice Stephen G. Breyer in ruling that, under Buckley , any limits on the amount candidates may spend on their campaigns violate freedom of speech. The three justices also ruled that although contribution limits are permissible, Vermont's were so low that they skewed political competition.

Because it was the narrowest reasoning in the majority, Breyer's opinion controls the case.

Yet it also had the appearance of damage control by Breyer, who has generally favored campaign finance regulation. The justices in the Breyer-led trio were the only members of the court to agree on his interpretation of Buckley .

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