Supreme Court Rules on Campaign Finance – not a good decision, but not a disaster either

Just a few hours ago, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Vermont’s campaign finance law of mandatory spending ceiling and low contribution limits. The decision is Randall v. Sorrell.

Though the decision is far from what I had hoped, it is not as bad as I had feared.

The bottom line is that this case upholds the state of current law on campaign finance. While the majority struck down Vermont’s contribution limits, the Court made it very clear that it was not striking down all contribution limits and is instead following law that has been on the books since 1976.

In the 1976 landmark Buckley decision, the Court held that money is a form of speech, and that the First Amendment prohibits mandatory ceilings on political spending. However, the court ruled, campaign contributions could be reasonably 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 very 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, such as those that are currently on the books at the federal level.

The decision means that little will change at the federal level and in most states. Perhaps the greatest damage may be to small states and local jurisdictions that have contribution limits lower than the federal standard. Montana — where it costs only $3,000 to run for state office — has contribution limits as low as $300. This is perfectly reasonable — only 10 contributors could supply enough money to run effectively for state office in Montana. But this law may now be subject to legal challenge, as well as other similar laws in local jurisdictions.

While this is not a good decision, it is not a disaster either. Perhaps the most reassuring aspect of the case is that the new justices appointed by President Bush — Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito — sided with the majority in making no new sweeping changes to the status quo. It was feared that the new justices might be willing to strike down all contribution limits. But this fear proved unfounded.