- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2005


The Supreme Court yesterday 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 across 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 yesterday of about a dozen cases that they will review beginning next year.

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, the Vermont Right to Life Committee and other groups asked the Supreme Court in May to overturn a ruling from a federal appeals court 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, restricts the spending of gubernatorial candidates to $300,000 and sets smaller spending caps for lower-tier candidates.

Vermont’s law has been tied up in court and never has taken full effect. Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, 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 varying amounts depending on the position. With the law tied up in the courts, state parties got involved last year, spending large sums to help Mr. Douglas and Democrat Peter Clavelle.

“This case is about law catching up with political reality,” said Brenda Wright, managing attorney for the National Voting Rights Institute and lead counsel for the Vermont groups defending the state’s limits. “When Buckley was decided, the cost of campaigns was relatively modest. Thirty years later, it’s clear the fundraising arms race has turned our officeholders into full-time fundraisers and undermined the public’s faith in government.”

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

In other developments, the Supreme Court:

• Said it would consider former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith’s appeal over the fortune of her 90-year-old late husband.

• Said it would decide how much effort governments must take before seizing someone’s property for unpaid taxes.

• Agreed to consider how much of a person’s lawsuit winnings can be taken by the government to cover health expenses funded through Medicaid.

• Agreed to use the case of a Florida man convicted of second-degree murder to clarify time limits for state inmates to file federal appeals.

• Said it would review two police-search cases from California involving claims of unconstitutional searches.

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