‘Moment of truth’ may have come for campaign finance

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

Is this the big one? Is the case of Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC the vehicle for a full-blown re-examination of the Supreme Court's doctrine on campaign-finance reform?

No one is certain at this point. All that is clear is that the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider the case next fall, and that if the justices wanted to make it a landmark case, they could.

“It's the moment of truth,” says Josh Rosenkranz of the Brennan Center for Justice, which has been hoping for years that the court will re-examine its view that the First Amendment limits some forms of campaign regulation. The court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which struck down campaign-spending limits on First Amendment grounds, has been viewed as a major stumbling block to campaign finance reform in recent years.

At issue in the Nixon case is a 1994 Missouri law that sets limits on individual contributions to candidates — $1,075 for candidates to statewide office, $525 to state Senate candidates and $275 for state representatives. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the limits “overly restrictive” of free expression, especially since Missouri had not shown that “in Missouri at this time there is corruption or a perception of corruption from large campaign contributions. We will not infer that state candidates for public office are corrupt.”

The appeals court struck down the law even though the 1976 Buckley decision upheld an almost identical campaign-contribution limit for federal elections. While striking down a limit on campaign spending, the high court in that case said limits on contributions to candidates could be justified as a way to reduce government corruption.

The 8th Circuit said the same link to corruption had not been made in the Missouri case and besides, the Missouri limit of $1,075 would translate into $378 in 1976 dollars, a limit even the Buckley court might have struck down.

“The limits at issue here are so small that they run afoul of the Constitution by unnecessarily restricting protected First Amendment freedoms,” the appeals panel ruled.

But Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, in appealing the case to the Supreme Court, said the 8th Circuit ruling “casts a serious cloud over the proper meaning of Buckley v. Valeo.” He also noted a 1997 ruling in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Kentucky Right to Life v. Terry, which upheld a similar contribution limit in Kentucky.

The conflict among the courts on an issue that Buckley appeared to have settled more than 20 years ago, Nixon said, has created an intolerable “constitutional limbo.” Nixon added, “It would be difficult to find an issue of greater national significance that both requires and warrants some measure of legal certainty.”

The high court apparently heard Nixon's plea and agreed to decide the case. But in so doing, it created some mystery. Though it acted on Nixon's appeal, it remained silent on a companion appeal of the same 8th Circuit ruling filed by the Brennan Center for Justice, which asked for a full-scale review of the “confused and unwieldy” underpinnings of the Buckley case.

To some, that suggested that the court is still not ready for a full-blown re-examination of Buckley, but will instead look only at the less controversial aspect of contribution limits, which it already has upheld.

Rosenkranz acknowledged he was uncertain why the court acted as it did, but he still predicts the case the court did agree to hear will require the court to decided “if it stands by Buckley or outright rejects it.”

Attorney General Jay Nixon said that the case he brought “clearly tees up the issues and criticisms of Buckley.” Even if the ruling is limited to the contribution issue, he said, “It will provide the court an opportunity to address a fundamental issue of democracy.”

Tony Mauro covers the Supreme Court for USA TODAY and is a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.