- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) A federal appeals court ruled for the first time yesterday that a state can limit how much political candidates can spend, even if they are not receiving public funding.

Attorneys in the Vermont case said the question ultimately will have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 2-1 ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1997 Vermont law limiting spending by gubernatorial candidates to $300,000. Act 64 sets lower caps for other state offices as well, down to as little as $2,000 for Vermont House hopefuls.

Circuit Judge Chester J. Straub said the limits "safeguard Vermont's democratic process from the corrupting influence of excessive and unbridled fund raising."

"This is an enormous victory for democracy in the United States," said John Bonifaz, a lawyer with the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, which intervened in the case.

The law had been challenged by the Vermont Republican Party and the Vermont Right to Life Committee.

"This is one of the most dramatic examples of judicial activism in recent history, where the heart of the First Amendment, which protects the right to engage in political speech, has now been deprived by a court," said James Bopp, an attorney for the two organizations.

He said he will appeal.

In 1976, the Supreme Court held that states may not limit how much a candidate may spend unless the campaign is funded by taxpayer money.

But the 2nd Circuit said that ruling ignores "how the campaign funds race has affected public confidence and representative democracy" over the years.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Ralph K. Winter said the Vermont law violates candidates' First Amendment rights to free political speech.

The caps, he wrote, "limit political speech, including editorializing speech by the press, for no permissible purpose, and entrust those who enforce the law with unfettered and unconstitutional discretion to determine what acts of political advocacy are permitted and prohibited."

The appeals court also upheld Vermont's limits on campaign contributions. Gubernatorial candidates, for example, may accept no more than $400 from a single contributor.

The appeals court did throw out portions of the law, including a 25 percent limit on contributions from outside Vermont.

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