- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Supreme Court dealt a much deserved blow to unduly restrictive campaign-finance laws on Monday. Randall v. Sorrell, although a multiheaded Medusa of an opinion, helps define what an unreasonable limitation on the amount of money spent on political campaigns looks like.

It looks like Vermont’s. By a 6-3 margin, the court overturned that state’s campaign-finance law. Though never implemented because of legal challenges, it sought uniquely low limits on spending. Gubernatorial hopefuls would have been capped at $300,000 and state senators at $4,000, while individual donors would have been limited in their givings to a maximum of $400 for any candidate for state office and $200 for state legislators. Former Gov. Howard Dean and a bevy of liberal activist groups — including Common Cause, Vermont PIRG and the National Voting Rights Institute — had piled behind the law because its strict approach fit nicely into their program of legislating money out of politics. They also viewed the Vermont law as a promising export to less “progressive” states.

But the numbers were simply too low and too restrictive. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that the “disproportionately severe” Vermont restrictions “would reduce the voice of the political parties to a whisper.” The law also likely would have become an incumbent-protection device, he noted, by handcuffing challengers who spend liberally to offset the advantages of incumbency.

Vermont activists in favor had previously argued the states-rights perspective: that Green Mountain voters simply prefer to see less money in state politics. Thankfully, the nod toward states rights, though touching, didn’t convince the Supreme Court, not with the serious First Amendment implications. Of course, the three justices who dissented (John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) would have been quite comfortable with the implications.

Liberal activists are now stripped of Vermont as a template for new campaign-finance restrictions. That is heartening news for people who regard strict limitations as infringement on free speech. From here, look for challenges to other unduly restrictive state laws now that a more reasonable floor for limitations is established.

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