Brief Fact Summary. Vermont passed a law on campaign finance which imposed restrictions on (1) the maximum expenditure allowable during the election campaign by a candidate for office (2) the maximum contribution allowable by an individual, political group or party towards the campaign expenses.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. (1) Limiting the expenditure allowable by a candidate for political office during a political election cycle is against the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
(2) The limit of $200-$400 which is allowed by the state of Vermont as contribution to a candidate’s election campaign expenditure by a person, party or political association is so low as to infringe upon First Amendment rights.
Issue. (1) Is it constitutional to set spending limits for an election campaign under the First Amendment?
(2) Is the contribution limit too low to allow freedom of expression under the First Amendment?
Held. (Breyer, J.)
(1) Yes. The constitution does not allow freedom of political speech to be curbed by a limit on the expenditure a political candidate may spend on his election. In Buckley v. Valeo, the court ruled that financial expenditure to influence the election of a candidate is free speech under the First Amendment and it cannot be limited without restricting speech. Under that precedent the present case is controlled by that ruling since there is here no special circumstance requiring the Court to reverse the verdict in Buckley, especially since the limits set by Vermont are in substance the same as those in the earlier case.
(2) Yes. The arbitrary limits of $200-$400 contribution per candidate are so low as to violate the constitution. Some degree of restriction on the contributions allowed to a candidate is acceptable under law, but the danger here is that the effectiveness of the campaign is seriously affected, causing a limitation on free speech out of proportion to the government’s interest. The conclusion is supported no only by the low dollar amount but by the result of the law as seen in the various political groups and in the level of activity by volunteers in Vermont elections.
Dissent. (Stevens, J.) (1) deserves a negative verdict as it concerns limits on political expenditure. While precedent is important, Buckley is a ruling which should be overturned since it reversed a practice of long standing on campaign expenditure. Another reason for demanding a negative ruling on (1) is that it would free candidates from the immobilizing burden of having to raise campaign funds.
(Souter, J.) The contribution limits deserve to be upheld. The decision on limiting spending on an election campaign should be referred to the lower courts for them to decide as to whether this was the least restrictive means for Vermont to serve its interests.
Concurrence. (Alito,J.) The re-consideration of the ruling in Buckley was not demanded by the defendants here, and the issue is therefore not relevant.
(Kennedy, J.) The Court reached the right decision but not by the right approach. The issue of limiting campaign expenditure by law was raised and encouraged by the Court itself. The question of how the definition of excessive restriction is arrived at, apart from setting an arbitrary limit of $200 or $1,500, has not been established.
(Thomas, J.) The ruling is correct but the reasoning of the Court is in error. Buckley itself does not protect political speech sufficiently, and should be overruled.
Discussion. The plaintiff in the present case was Neil Randall, a Vermont legislator. The earlier case of Buckley did not say in so many words that the constitution categorically forbade the imposition of any spending limits whatsoever. This present ruling too does not alter the earlier possibility left open of mandatory restrictions being introduced which could stand up to constitutional guarantees. The most important aspect is that the decision does not strike down as unconstitutional the existing regulations on voluntary expenditure written into public financing systems.