High court to examine Vermont campaign-finance law

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today agreed to review a campaign-finance law in Vermont, where reformers are trying to limit donations and spending in state political races.

The Vermont case has been watched closely by campaign-finance reform advocates around the country, and by those who argue that limiting political contributions or expenditures would violate the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee.

The high court does not begin its term until next week, but justices released a list today of about a dozen cases that they will review beginning next year.

The Court today also noted probable jurisdiction in an appeal brought by a Wisconsin anti-abortion group challenging political advertising restrictions in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The high court upheld the law in 2003 in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, but Wisconsin Right to Life brought a new challenge claiming that restrictions violated its free-speech rights.

The Court’s vote in the 2003 campaign-finance case was 5-4. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s departure could leave the Court split 4-4 on that issue.

In 1976, the Supreme Court came down squarely on the free-speech side of the argument when it decided Buckley v. Valeo, which is the law of the land on efforts to limit campaign spending. That decision struck down campaign-spending limits imposed by Congress.

The Vermont Republican State Committee, Vermont Right-to-Life and other groups asked the Supreme Court in May to overturn a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that largely upheld the 1998 Vermont campaign-finance law.

It limits individual contributions to a candidate to $200 or $400 in a two-year period, depending on the office being sought, says no one running for governor can spend more than $300,000 and sets smaller spending caps for lower-tier candidates.

Vermont’s law has been tied up in court and never has gone fully into effect. Gov. James Douglas spent nearly $682,000 to get re-elected last year, and other candidates spent well over the law’s caps.

The Vermont law also limits political parties’ contributions to candidates to $2,000 per election cycle. With the law tied up in the courts, Douglas and Democrat Peter Clavelle got six-figure contributions from their national parties last year.

Races for the U.S. House and Senate would not be affected, since they are governed by federal, rather than state, campaign-finance laws.

Where core First Amendment principles are at stake, courts must bring a healthy skepticism to claims that candidates and non-candidates spend too much time and money on the political process, justices were told in court papers by lawyers for the Vermont Right to Life Committee, the Vermont Republican State Committee and others.

“By setting its limits so low and applying them so broadly, Vermont makes it difficult for many candidates to raise necessary finances,” the groups said in asking the Supreme Court to take the case.

Supporters of limits on contributions and expenditures also asked the Court to take the case, saying that justices must resolve once and for all whether spending limits are permissible.

“This never-ending desire for campaign money has forced candidates to become beholden to large groups of contributors and special interests that control access to such funds,” said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.

The Vermont cases are Randall v. Sorrell, 04-1528, Vermont Republican State Committee v. Sorrell, 04-1530, and Sorrell v. Randall, 04-1697. The Wisconsin case is Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, 04-1581.

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