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Justices Reject Vermont's Campaign Finance Law

The other three votes against Vermont came from justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They opposed the Vermont law on broad free-speech reasoning that would have scrapped or changed Buckley's limits on campaign contributions.

Vermont could muster support only from dissenters John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter in favor of its reading of Buckley , which would have permitted spending limits under some circumstances.

The result appears to doom any future efforts to impose spending limits on state or federal campaigns, legal analysts said.

The Vermont law at issue in yesterday's ruling was enacted by the state legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 1997.

The statute was written by advocates of tougher campaign laws who knew that its limits on spending, which ranged from $2,500 for state House candidates to $300,000 for gubernatorial candidates, ran counter to Buckley . But they wanted to generate a case that would force the Supreme Court to revisit and reinterpret the precedent.

Emphasizing society's "reliance on settled precedent," Breyer rejected Vermont's plea . He noted that it "amounts to no more than an invitation so to limit Buckley's holding as to effectively overrule it."

Breyer wrote that Vermont's rationale for spending limits -- to cut back on the time candidates must spend raising cash -- was not new, as the state had argued, but had already been factored into the court's ruling in Buckley .

Breyer moved on to the contribution limits for individuals and parties, which range from $200 per two-year election cycle -- primary and general elections included -- for state House candidates, to $400 for statewide candidates.

Reading a summary of his opinion in court yesterday, Breyer said the $200-per-election limit on contributions for statewide races is "way, way, way lower" than the $1,000 federal limit approved in Buckley -- 95 percent lower, adjusted for inflation. As such, he said, it endangers the ability of some candidates, especially challengers, to get their message out.

In his written opinion, he noted four additional problems: that the limits are not adjusted to inflation; that they also apply to political parties, harming their right to association; that the level of political corruption in Vermont did not seem unusually serious; and that the law would force volunteers to count their expenses as campaign contributions.

A volunteer who "offers a campaign the use of her house along with coffee and doughnuts for a few dozen neighbors to meet the candidate, say, two or three times during the campaign" might run afoul of the law, Breyer wrote.

In a concurring opinion joined by Scalia, Thomas argued that Breyer's opinion provided no "workable inquiry to be performed by States attempting to comply with this Court's jurisprudence." He repeated his previous call to scrap Buckley . In a separate opinion, Kennedy said the post- Buckley "new order" "may cause more problems than it solves," but stopped short of calling for the decision's overruling.

In dissent, Souter, joined by Stevens and Ginsburg, agreed with Vermont that its contribution limits were constitutional, saying they "are not remarkable departures either from those previously upheld by this Court or from those lately adopted by other States."

Souter and Ginsburg also would have interpreted Buckley to allow the state to defend its limits in court, based on what Souter called "the impact of the money chase on the democratic process."

Stevens, who was on the court in 1976 but did not vote in Buckley , went further, saying he had concluded that "the time has come to overrule" Buckley's spending limits. He wrote that "a candidate need not flood the airways with ceaseless sound-bites of trivial information in order to provide voters with reasons to support her."

Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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