Court Rejects Vermont's Campaign-Finance Law

The Supreme Court rejected a Vermont law Monday that sets strict limits on money in political campaigns. The ruling came as a relief to many people in politics. It maintains the standards that have governed campaign finance for the past 30 years.

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The Court gave a larger majority, six to three, to a decision about money and political campaigns. The majority's decision surprised many who raise and spend the funds for consultants, campaign staffs, commercials, and war rooms. The surprise was that the Court did not change the rules on them.

NPR's Peter Overby reports:

PETER OVERBY, reporting:

The rules of campaign finance rest on a Supreme Court decision from 30 years ago. It established two principles which have always fit together rather awkwardly. First, government can limit the size of contributions to a candidate, at least limit them up to a point, in the name of guarding against real or apparent corruption. But second, government can never restrict what a candidate spends. That spending is the expression of free speech. Those principles were challenged by the legislature in Vermont. Lawmakers passed tough money standards for state races - contribution limits that were by far the lowest in the country, and an absolute limit on candidate spending.

Paul Burns is director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which worked for the bill.

Mr. PAUL BURNS (Executive Director, Vermont Public Interest Research Group): The limits that we put in place under this law for both contributions and expenditures were the right fit for Vermont, and the Court seems to be thinking more along the lines of one size fits all.

OVERBY: And the one size is this: Still no limits on spending, and no contribution limits set so low that what the opinion calls the democratic electoral process is put at risk. That judgment came in a plurality opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer. He expressed concern that low contribution limits would cripple challengers when they take on incumbents. He listed other factors of concern in the Vermont law including extreme limits on contributions to political parties, and the failure to raise contribution limits for inflation.

Joining Breyer were Chief Justice John Roberts, and, for most of the opinion, Justice Samuel Alito. Other justices issued a small blizzard of concurring and dissenting opinions, five in all.

Lawyer James Bopp represented the Vermont Republican Party and others challenging the law. He said the ruling puts states on notice that they can't go too far in limiting campaign funds.

Mr. JAMES BOPP, JR. (attorney for the Vermont Republican Party): It shows that there is a Constitutional minimum, and everyone thought that it was anything goes as far as contribution limits, and that's just simply not true. So, that is progress from a pro-first amendment standpoint.

OVERBY: Within what both sides call the reform community, the Vermont case has been divisive, and there are differing ideas now about what it means. Adam Lioz is with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He says their polling tells them most voters want limits on campaign spending, especially with several money and lobbying scandals in Washington. So, advocates of spending limits might follow the one avenue still open to them.

Mr. ADAM LIOZ (US Public Interest Research Group): Well, we would certainly look to amend the Constitution, to make explicitly clear, that money is not speech, and that American jurisdictions, states, localities, have the right to take back control of their political system through a common sense limit on campaign spending.

OVERBY: But other advocates of stricter laws are just relieved that a new conservative coalition on the Court didn't emerge and lay the groundwork for undoing existing campaign finance standards.

Randolph Moss co-wrote a Friend of the Court brief in the case for the authors of the most recent campaign finance law, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, and Congressmen Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan. Yesterday, Moss said the decision hasn't damaged their cause.

Mr. RANDOLPH MOSS (Co-Author, Friend of the Court Brief): It does tell you that, I think, there is significant disagreement in the Supreme Court, regarding what standards should apply in campaign finance cases, but that there is a core group and a group which commands a majority for the proposition that the law that has applied for many years, should continue to apply.

OVERBY: And the curious combination of limited political contributions and unlimited political spending, will remain.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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