Vermont Challenges Tie Between Speech, Spending

The Supreme Court considers a challenge to a Vermont law that would overturn three decades of federal campaign finance law. Current precedent limits the amount of money individual donors can give candidates, but not the amount candidates can spend in a campaign. Vermont wants to set spending limits on gubernatorial candidates.

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Today's other case before the Supreme Court is not as sexy, but is important. It challenges a cornerstone of the nation's political money laws, the notion that candidates have a constitutional right to spend as much as they want to get elected.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, reporting:

It's safe to say that nobody in the Vermont campaign finance case ever undressed for Playboy Magazine. But it is fair to point out that the case itself lays bare a weird contradiction in campaign finance. Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court gave government the power to regulate campaign contributions, the money given to candidates and party committees. But the court said nobody can limit the amount politicians spend. Here's the logic of that ruling. Contribution limits help prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption, while spending limits violate a candidate's first amendment First Amendment rights. Or, in political shorthand, a candidate's campaign money is a form of free speech.

But as campaign costs rose sharply in the 1990s, Vermont lawmakers decided to challenge that precedent head-on. They passed a law saying that no candidate for governor can spend more than $300,000. Here's Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.

Attorney Generel WILLIAM SORRELL (Vermont): This was not some 11th-hour, under the radar law that legislative leadership told the members just to pass it. This was an awful lot of public debate, all kinds of public dialogue about the need for the law, and what should go into it.

OVERBY: In fact, there were 65 hearings. On the final vote, more than four out of five lawmakers voted yes. This debate raised the same concerns that come up in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers said they had to spend too much time raising money, making them pay more attention to donors than to ordinary citizens. But others, including the Vermont Republican Party, say that restricting spending is still unconstitutional. And besides, it just hands the political megaphone to unaccountable outside groups.

James Bobb(ph) is arguing against Vermont before the High Court today.

Mr. JAMES BOBB (attorney, Vermont): this is the core of the First Amendment, and of all the political actors, candidates are the ones that we should most hear from.

OVERBY: Bobb says the Vermont law is being pushed by national advocates who really want public financing of campaigns.

Mr. BOBB: If they want to mandate public funding, they would have to demonstrate that private funding of elections is just inherently corruptive.

OVERBY: And that, he says, is a huge hurdle. Here's another hurdle for Vermont as well: contribution limits. The state first tapped political contributions in 1961, long before Congress did so for federal campaigns. The new Vermont law sets those limits even lower. The ceilings for a gubernatorial campaign contribution is $400. That may be pocket change for big time political players, but not for ordinary Vermonters, according to Attorney General Sorrell.

Attorney General SORRELL: There was testimony that hey, that's a couple of weeks of groceries. You know, that's the kids' clothes for school, and all the Christmas presents, or whatever. And the average Vermonter still thinks that a $400 contribution is, and the court found, suspiciously large.

OVERBY: both sides in this case have legions of allies. One key supporter of limits is the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, a long-time advocate of tighter campaign finance laws. Its director is Stuart Comstock-Gay. He says the First Amendment should protect more than just the well-financed candidate.

Mr. STUART COMSTOCK-GAY (Executive Director, National Voting Rights Institute): Most candidates have their First Amendment interest being heard over the din of candidate unlimited spending. Voters have an interest in hearing both sides of an issue.

OVERBY: The original Supreme Court case on this, the one from 30 years ago, is called Buckley versus Voleo. It's so much a part of the political landscape, that Eric Davis, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont, says that the challenge is likely to fail.

Dr. ERIC DAVIS (Political Scientist, Middlebury College): It will face uphill battle in the Supreme Court. One of the things that the plaintiffs are asking the Court to do, in effect, is to reconsider a line of cases now that goes back 30 years. And the Supreme Court is sometimes reluctant to overturn precedents that have become settled.

OVERBY: But like that other famous Supreme Court case of the 1970s, the one that legalized abortion, this supposedly settled issue just keeps coming back. A decision on this case is expected before summer.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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