NVRI: National Voting Rights Institute

Campaign Spending Limits in the U.S. Supreme Court

This site includes information relevant to the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration of, and ruling on Randall v. Sorrell, a case in which the Court ruled unconstitutional much of a Vermont state law setting limits on campaign spending and donations. NVRI represented a number of Vermont organizations and individuals defending the constitutionality of this law (click here for information on parties to the case). This site contains the Court's decision, briefs by all parties to the case, general materials on campaign spending, details on the Vermont law, lower court rulings and pleadings, and information on other major campaign spending cases.

The Supreme Court's Decision

In a splintered 6-3 decision issued on June 26, 2006, the Supreme Court struck down Vermont's limits on campaign spending and contributions. While reaffirming previous holdings that limits on contributions are generally constitutional, the Court struck down Vermont's particular limits as being too restrictive. (Click here to read the opinions issued by the Court.)

In overturning Vermont's limits on campaign expenditures, a narrow majority declined to overrule the Court's 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down congressional spending limits on First Amendment grounds. Three justices (Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Stevens) would have allowed the trial court to reconsider the constitutionality of spending limits, with Justice Stevens declaring outright that Buckley's holding on spending limits should be overruled. A fourth (Justice Alito) declined to address the issue of whether Buckley should be overruled on that point, saying it had not been properly presented. Justice Breyer, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, ruled that principles of stare decisis required them to strike down Vermont's spending limits. Justice Kennedy concurred only in the result reached by the Breyer plurality opinion, while Justices Thomas and Scalia reiterated their view that spending limits are unconstitutional.

In addressing the constitutionality of Vermont's contribution limits, the Court was equally splintered. Three justices (Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Stevens) would have upheld the limits in their entirety. Justices Thomas and Scalia, consistent with their past views, would have held that no limits on contributions may ever be sustained under the First Amendment. The controlling opinion, written by Justice Breyer and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, reaffirmed previous holdings that limits on contributions are generally constitutional, but struck down Vermont's particular limits as being too restrictive, citing five cumulative factors that dictated their conclusion. These included:

Contribution limit schemes that differ from Vermont's with respect to one or more of those features are not necessarily unconstitutional under the Court's decision.

For more information on the outcome of Randall v. Sorrell, click here to read NVRIís in-depth analysis of the Courtís decision, and click here for the Instituteís press release following the decision.

Defending Vermont's Campaign Finance Reforms

On February 28, 2006, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell and National Voting Rights Institute lawyer Brenda Wright argued before the Supreme Court in defense of the Vermont law. Click here for NVRI's comments following the oral argument, and to read the transcript of the argument, click here (pdf).

A broad coalition joined together to defend Vermont's campaign spending and contribution limits. Amicus briefs in support of the law were filed by interested parties from across the political spectrum, including a bi-partisan group of 13 U.S. Senators and Representatives, former U.S. Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and Alan Simpson (R-WY), 17 state Attorneys General, several state Secretaries of State, 13 current and former elected state judges and justices, prominent past ACLU officials, several candidates who have run as challengers in Congressional elections, nearly two dozen democracy reform and civil rights organizations, and many others. Click here to read brief summary excerpts from each brief.

As a recent poll commissioned by NVRI revealed, many agree the current system is unfair and chronically flawed. A remarkable 87% of voters support caps on campaign spending as a way of improving the fairness, honesty and integrity of elections.

Vermont's comprehensive campaign finance reform law was adopted in 1997 out of concern that the escalating arms race in campaign fundraising and spending has undermined public confidence in government and turned elected officials into full-time fundraisers. Among the many provisions of Vermont's law are limits on how much candidates for state offices may spend.

Following the passage of Vermont's electoral reforms, opponents of campaign spending limits were quick to challenge the law in federal court. Beginning in 1998, NVRI joined the state of Vermont to defend the state's spending limits. In a groundbreaking decision in August 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that campaign spending limits may be upheld against constitutional challenge, citing Vermont's experience with unlimited campaign spending since the Supreme Court's 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo. The Second Circuit ruled that Vermont established two compelling governmental interests that justify its campaign spending limits: preventing the reality and appearance of corruption, and protecting the time of candidates and elected officials from the burdens of endless fundraising. On September 27, 2005, the Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of Vermont's campaign reform law.