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 .

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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