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Campaign Reforms - Contribution Limits:

The Supreme Court on January 24, 2000 issued a landmark decision upholding Missouri's contribution limits against constitutional challenge. Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 377, 120 S.Ct. 897 (2000). While reform opponents — and some lower courts — had sought to erect high legal hurdles against contribution limits, the Court affirmed that states have substantial leeway to act. The danger of corruption posed by large contributions is "neither novel nor implausible," the Court held. And state lawmakers are due deference in choosing appropriate limits, unless they set limits that are "so radical in effect as to render political association ineffective, drive the sound of a candidate's voice below the level of notice, and render contributions pointless."

NVRI served as amicus counsel for a coalition of secretaries of state from across the country, and also helped generate amici briefs from a coalition of state attorneys general (representing their respective states) and from a coalition of U.S. Senators and Members of Congress.

NVRI's amicus brief on behalf of secretaries of state.

In December 1999, NVRI filed an amicus brief defending Colorado's contribution limits, on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Colorado Chapter (Colorado ACORN). The contribution limits — approved by voters in a 1996 ballot initiative — were struck by a federal district court in August 1999, before the Supreme Court issued the Shrink decision, discussed above. But the case was rendered moot on appeal when the Colorado legislature raised the limits. Citizens for Responsible Government State Political Action Committee v. Davidson, 236 F.3d 1174 (10th Cir. 2000).

NVRI's amicus brief on on behalf of Colorado ACORN

In 1997, Vermont enacted a comprehensive campaign reform law imposing new, lower limits on campaign contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs, as well as limits on campaign spending by candidates. NVRI's work defending the spending limits is described in Challenging Buckley v. Valeo. NVRI, on behalf of a coalition of defendant-intervenors led by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, also successfully defended Vermont's new contribution limits against constitutional challenges in three lawsuits consolidated as Landell v. Sorrell. In August 2000, federal District Judge William K. Sessions, III, upheld limits on individual and PAC contributions to candidates of $400 per election cycle for statewide races, $300 for senate races, and $200 for house races. The Court also upheld limits on so-called "related expenditures" made by third parties in coordination with candidates, and limits on contributions to PACs and political parties. On August 7, 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the constitutionality of all these contribution limits, as well as Vermont's limits on contributions by political parties to candidates (one of the few provisions which the District Court had struck down). The plaintiffs have asked the Second Circuit to rehear the case en banc (before all 11 active judges on the Court), and alternatively have stated that they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. NVRI, together with Vermont attorney Peter Welch and the Vermont Attorney General's office, will continue its defense of the contribution limits in any further appeals.

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In March of 1998, the Akron City Council was scheduled to vote on whether to approve an oil-drilling project supported by a number of business interests in Akron. On the evening of the vote, a City Council member approached another Council member, Mike Parsons, in the men’s room at City Hall and handed him an envelope full of cash, saying the money came from the businesses interested in the project.

To his credit, Parsons blew the whistle and reported what had happened. Disgusted by incidents like these and the overwhelming climate of “pay to play” that had taken over City Hall, Akron citizens responded by approving a ballot measure establishing a new campaign finance law with strict contribution limits and disclosure requirements. The reform referendum was supported by 68% of the electorate, despite the active opposition of the Mayor and several City Council incumbents. After failing to stop reform at the ballot box, a number of City Council members sued to invalidate the law, alleging that the limits of $300 for mayoral races and $100 for city council races infringed upon the First

Amendment. The City of Akron’s legal department, instead of leading the defense of Akron’s new law, joined the plaintiffs in arguing that the law was unconstitutional, leaving the defense no choice but to rely on a group of local reform advocates in Akron who intervened in the case.

In July 2002, the Akron reformers asked NVRI to join the legal battle, seeking assistance in defending a victory they won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit had upheld the constitutionality of the law in a 2-1 decision, but had subsequently issued an order asking the reformers to respond to a request for rehearing en banc before the full Sixth Circuit – signaling that the Court might reverse its decision. NVRI agreed to join the case on behalf of the interveners, filing a brief on July 24, 2002, which defended the constitutionality of Akron’s contribution limits and urged the Court to deny the plaintiffs’ request for further review. On August 22, 2002, the court denied the petition for en banc rehearing, allowing the contribution limits to stand. NVRI will continue to represent the interveners as co-counsel if the plaintiffs seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The interveners in the case are the Yes on 11 Campaign, Greg Coleridge, Bruce Kilby, Patricia Longville, and Mike Parsons. Co-counsel are Warner Mendenhall and Brian J. Williams of Akron, Ohio.

To read more about this case visit our legal library