The Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the government cannot set limits on a political candidate's spending, overturning a Vermont law, and that the state set too strict a limit on donations to campaigns.
In a 6-3 ruling, the court said the money that a campaign spends is a matter of free speech, reaffirming the 1976 Buckley case that defined modern campaign-finance law. The court also ruled that Vermont's limit of $200 to $400 for donations to campaigns -- the strictest in the country -- was too low, although some limit is permissible.
"We must recognize the existence of some lower bound," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the controlling opinion for the court. "At some point, the constitutional risks to the democratic electoral process become too great."
It was the first time that the court has addressed major campaign-finance issues since 2003, when the court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which restricts the ways that national political parties and interest groups raise and spend money.
The decision was fractured, with six justices writing opinions. Justice Breyer's plurality opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both of whom were sworn in within the past year.
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia agreed with Justice Breyer's conclusion but said the Buckley case, which distinguished between individual donors' spending and candidates' spending, should be scrapped.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter dissented, arguing that the court should defer to Vermont lawmakers.
The Vermont law's supporters said the statute was needed to prevent political corruption.
"Instead of allowing us to level the playing field, the justices have pushed average folks to the sidelines and preserved a clear path to power for wealthy donors," said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backed the law.
But James Bopp Jr., the lead counsel who challenged the law, said the court ruling put the First Amendment back into campaign-finance law.
"Many people thought that there was no contribution limit that was too low. I think this court made clear there is," he said.
The Vermont law capped spending at $300,000 for a candidate for governor, $100,000 for a candidate for lieutenant governor, $45,000 for other statewide offices, $4,000 for a state senator and either $3,000 or $2,000 for a state representative, depending on the type of district. The limits are adjusted for inflation with every two-year election cycle.
The law also capped individual contributions to candidates at $400 for a statewide office such as governor, $300 for a state Senate race and $200 for a state representative's race. The law treated political parties as if they were people, capping their donations to candidates at the same levels.
Justice Breyer spent a good deal of his opinion trying to weigh how big a state's population is versus the cost of campaigns and the importance of an elected office, at one point comparing Vermont's governor's race to Missouri's state auditor's race, which the court upheld with a limit of $1,075 per election in a state with nine times the population of Vermont.
Justice Kennedy, in his concurring opinion, noted the position the court has left itself in after decades of campaign-finance decisions.
"On a routine, operational level the present system requires us to explain why $200 is too restrictive a limit while $1,500 is not. Our own experience gives us little basis to make these judgments, and certainly no traditional or well-established body of law exists to offer guidance," he wrote.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, also agreed with the court's conclusion but said the 1976 Buckley decision's split between contributions and campaign spending is "misguided" and should be scrapped.
In his dissent, Justice Stevens also wrote that the 1976 decision should be overturned, but in the opposite direction so that it also includes limits on campaign spending.
He noted that the judicial doctrine of stare decisis, or letting precedents stand, is not an "inexorable command" -- a phrase made famous by Justice Alito in his confirmation hearings discussing precedent and the role of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a right to have an abortion.
The case, Randall v. Sorrell, combined several challenges to the Vermont law. Yesterday's ruling overturned a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.