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Supreme Court Upholds Status Quo on Spending Ceilings and Contribution Limits

June 26, 2006

Supreme Court Upholds Status Quo on Spending Ceilings and Contribution Limits

Vermont’s Mandatory Spending Ceilings and Low Contribution Limits Struck down in a Bow to Precedent  

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court today made no significant changes to the legal principles that govern campaign finance law. Earlier cases had held mandatory spending ceilings unconstitutional, but had held that contribution limits are permissible so long as they are not so low that they infringe on free speech rights. The court’s narrowly tailored decision today in Randall v. Sorrell reaffirmed this legal status quo and struck down Vermont’s campaign finance law.

In 1997, the Vermont legislature adopted a campaign finance law that included mandatory spending ceilings for all candidates and contribution limits as low as $200 per election cycle. Backers of the law explicitly crafted it as a challenge to the court’s prior decisions striking down mandatory spending ceilings. Because the court failed to find a basis for overruling these precedents, it “consequently declined[d] the…invitation to reconsider” prevailing law.

“The decision is not unexpected, but we believe states should be constitutionally permitted to impose reasonable spending ceilings on candidates,” said Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen. “There is far too much money being spent on campaigns. Citizens should be able to set reasonable limits for politicians in order to deter a war-chest mentality that breeds corruption.”

In the 1976 landmark Buckley v. Valeo decision, the court held that political expenditures are an expression of First Amendment free speech, and thus, that the First Amendment requires “strict scrutiny” of mandatory ceilings on political spending. The court also ruled that campaign contributions could be limited because large contributions create the possibility or appearance of corruption. In today’s case, the court invalidated Vermont’s mandatory spending ceilings and also struck down the state’s low contribution limits of between $200 and $400 per election cycle. The court also made clear that reasonable contribution limits that do not starve campaign speech are permissible.

“Though the decision is not what we hoped, it does no harm to existing principles,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen. “There was some concern that the new court might impose a more restrictive standard of scrutiny for contribution limits that would call into question not only Vermont’s low limits, but also the higher limits that courts have routinely upheld. Fortunately, that did not happen. Instead, the decision left in place the public’s ability to adopt reasonable policies that constrain campaign contributions.”