This article originally provided by The New York Times

June 26, 2006

Justices Block Vermont Campaign Finance Law


WASHINGTON, June 26 The Supreme Court ruled today that a Vermont law restricting campaign donations and expenditures was unconstitutional. The court said that the law's limits on how much a candidate could spend violated a landmark 30-year-old ruling equating such spending with free speech and that its limits on donations to a campaign were far too stringent.

The 6-to-3 ruling was the court's latest effort to deal with the vexing question of whether in the name of reducing the role of money in the political arena legislatures may impose limits on the amount of money candidates may spend and raise.

The court offered in a 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo, what has turned out to be an enduring if controversial framework for those issues. The justices said that some limits on donations were constitutional as part of an effort to control the influence of money in politics. But the court said that the money a candidate spent in an election was equivalent to free speech and any limit on that would be an unconstitutional infringement on that right.

The debate has raged over the years and produced a handful of other rulings, none of which upset the basic framework of the 1976 opinion. The court today upheld the 1976 ruling, deciding that some limits on donations were acceptable but that restricting campaign spending was unconstitutional.

At the same time, the Vermont case demonstrated that the issue continues to produce sharp debate among the justices. They filed six separate opinions, including one by two justices who believe there should be no restrictions on spending or donating and want the 1976 ruling overturned outright.

Vermont enacted its campaign finance law in 1997, spurred by those who believe there should be restrictions on both spending and donations. The law provided the court with what seemed its best recent opportunity to re-evaluate the 29-year-old precedent in Buckley.

The Vermont law set the lowest limits in the nation on donations, capping gifts at $200 for state House campaigns over a two-year election cycle; $300 for state Senate and $400 for statewide offices. In his controlling opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the court had allowed limits on donations in other states but said that the ones put forward by Vermont imposed burdens on the First Amendment that were "disproportionately severe."

His ruling, parts of which were joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, said that the Vermont law's donation limits raise "substantial restrictions on the ability of candidates to raise the funds necessary to run a competitive election." He said that the low limits on how much an individual could donate to a candidate made it especially difficult for challengers, thus giving an undue advantage to incumbents.

On the more contentious issue of limiting the amount of money a candidate could spend, Justice Breyer wrote, "We can find here no special justification that would require us to overrule Buckley."

The Vermont law limited the amount a candidate for governor may spend in a two-year election cycle to $300,000; a candidate for lieutenant governor to $100,000, and other statewide offices to $45,000. State senators and representatives would be limited to spending between $4,000 and $2,000, depending on their district.

Justice Breyer said the state had demonstrated neither any increase in corruption nor that capping campaign spending was the only way to attack corruption.

The court's action overturned a 2-to-1 ruling by a federal appeals court. That ruling endorsed the state's approach, saying that the 1976 Supreme Court ruling was not a complete bar to restricting campaign spending and that growing public cynicism had now made the case for doing so "compelling."

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter dissented. Justice Stevens said that he disagreed that money spent by a campaign was the equivalent of speech, the underpinning of the 1976 ruling. Justice Souter said that the Court should have deferred to the judgment of the people of Vermont on how to reduce corruption and its appearance.

"The findings made by the Vermont legislature on the pernicious effect of the nonstop pursuit of money are significant," he wrote.

Justices Scalia and Thomas, in a separate opinion, urged that all campaign restrictions be abolished.

The case was the first opportunity for the court's newest members, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, to weigh in on the issue of campaign financing.


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