Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on Supreme Court?s Ruling in Missouri Campaign Contribution Limit Case

Jan. 24, 2000

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on Supreme Court?s Ruling in Missouri Campaign Contribution Limit Case

    The Supreme Court’s decision today upholding Missouri’s campaign contribution limits dealt a fatal blow to Sen. Mitch McConnell?s (R-Ky.) argument that real campaign finance reform is unconstitutional. The Court stripped away two key anti-reform myths: that limits on contributions violate free speech and that they must be adjusted upwards to keep pace with inflation.

    The ruling makes several points clear. First, the portion of Buckley v. Valeo (the 1976 Supreme Court campaign finance decision) that upholds limits on contributions remains good law, as efforts to overrule it fell flat by a vote of 6-3. Second, the appearance of corruption — and not proof that any official is corrupt — remains the standard under which contribution limits can be imposed. Third, the Court will give great deference to the views of legislators and the public on the level at which an appearance of corruption exists. Fourth, the notion that the $1,000 limit approved in Buckley is no longer valid, because of the effect of inflation alone, is without merit since “the dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index” (Souter opinion at 17-18). Finally, any claim that particular contribution limits are so low as to make it impossible to raise money to wage a realistic race will be viewed with considerable skepticism and must be backed by solid evidence — and not simply self-evident assertions that it would have been easier to raise money if there were higher contribution limits (or none at all).

    It is important to note that Souter wrote, “There is little reason to doubt that sometimes large contributions will work actual corruption of our political system, and no reason to question the existence of a corresponding suspicion among voters (Souter opinion, 15).

    In addition, nothing in the opinion of Justice David Souter, or the two concurring opinions, casts doubt on the ability of Congress to regulate soft money. Indeed, although Justice Kennedy dissented from today’s ruling, he cited the presence of soft money and phony issue ads as reasons why the system is broken and hence, in his view, why contribution limits that deal with only a part of the problem do not satisfy the First Amendment.

    (Public Citizen filed an amicus brief supporting the Missouri contribution limits.)

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