Legal Library

Kruse v. City of Cincinnati


Kruse v. City of Cincinnati represented the first opportunity in twenty years for a direct revisitation of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo striking down mandatory campaign expenditure limits in legislative elections.

In July 1995, the Cincinnati City Council enacted an ordinance setting mandatory campaign expenditure limits in City Council elections. The ordinance states that candidates for City Council may not spend more than three times the annual salary for a Council position in their campaigns, thus setting the limits at approximately $136,000 per election. (Councilmembers earn $45,264 per year. City Council seats in Cincinnati are at-large seats; the Cincinnati population is about 350,000 people.) In recent years, candidates for City Council have spent, on average, approximately $124,000 on their campaigns. Some candidates, however, have spent more than $200,000, and one recent candidate spent more than $360,000 to win a City Council seat. The top 15 City Council candidates competing for the nine at-large seats in the 1995 elections spent a total of $2,265,000. This dramatic rise in campaign spending helped lead the way for the passage of the ordinance.

The Cincinnati City Council enacted this ordinance as a direct challenge to the Buckley ruling. In March of 1996, a well-financed candidate and two campaign contributors filed suit in federal court against the City seeking to have the limits declared unconstitutional on Buckley grounds. The City retained the National Voting Rights Institute to serve as co-lead counsel in the defense of the ordinance. Read our memorandum in opposition to motion for summary judgment.

The City argued that the ordinance was justified on constitutional grounds by the following state interests: 1) the interest in curbing corruption and the appearance of corruption in City Council races; 2) the interest in protecting the integrity of the electoral process in City Council races; 3) the interest in equalizing the ability of all Cincinnati citizens to participate in the election of their City Council Members; 4) the interest in limiting the skyrocketing costs of City Council election campaigns and in opening the electoral process to candidates less able to meet such costs; 5) the interest in protecting the Equal Protection rights of all Cincinnati citizens to participate in the electoral process on an equal and meaningful basis; and 6) the interest in protecting the First Amendment rights of all Cincinnati citizens to be heard in the electoral process and to hear information from all City Council candidates, regardless of their access to wealth.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on a motion for summary judgment issued January 31, 1997. Defendants and intervenors filed appeals with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in February 1997. Read the Institute's appellate brief filed May 20, 1997. An amicus brief supporting the Institute's arguments on appeal was filed concurrently by the State of Iowa and officials representing thirty-three other states.

The amicus brief was filed by Attorneys General from the States of Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and the Territory of Guam. Also joining the amicus brief were the Secretaries of State or other officials responsible for campaign finance regulation in the States of Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and in the Territory of Guam.


On June 16, 1997, The New York Timespublished a story under the headline: "Clinton Pushes Spending Limits for Candidates." The subhead explained: "Justice Dept. Seeks Test; 2 Cases in Ohio Draw Interest as Way to Mount Challenge."

In that exclusive story, reporter James Bennet wrote that "The Justice Department is seeking a case to enable it to ask the Supreme Court to review a landmark 21-year-old decision banning mandatory spending limits in campaigns.... Advocates of stricter campaign finance practices consider that decision, in Buckley v. Valeo, to be their central legal obstacle, but no previous Administration has tried to challenge it."

In a follow-up to The New York Times article, Associated Press reporter Michael J. Sniffen wrote on June 16 that "The Clinton Administration is interested in mounting a legal attack on a landmark 1976 Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on campaign spending..." Sniffen quotes White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry as saying "The President, others at the White House believe... a test of whether or not the original Buckley decision is a valid measure of constitutionality is in order."

McCurry added that the Justice Department was looking for "the right case to make the test," according to the AP.

Oral arguments were heard before a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 17, 1998. Major media outlets reported on the hearing, including The New York Times - Cincinnati Tests Limits on Spending in Campaigns (3/18/98), The Washington Post - Cincinnati Case to Address Constitutionality of Campaign Fund Caps (3/17/98), The National Law Journal - Campaign Finance Back to Justices? (3/16/98), The Cincinnati Enquirer - City Wants Trial on Campaign Spending Law (3/18/98) and Associated Press - Cincinnati Takes Campaign Spending Fight to Appeals Court (3/18/98). The Boston Globe published an editorial on the hearing, A Day in Court for Campaign Reform (3/18/98).

On April 27, 1998, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's ruling that the City's ordinance limiting campaign expenditures is unconstitutional. However, Judge Avern Cohen noted the following in his concurring opinion:

The Supreme Court's decision in Buckley, however, is not a broad pronouncement declaring all campaign expenditure limits unconstitutional. It may be possible to develop a factual record to establish that the interest in freeing office-holders from the pressures of fundraising, so they can perform their duties, or the interest in preserving faith in our democracy, is compelling, and that campaign expenditure limits are a narrowly tailored means of serving such an interest.

Press coverage of the ruling included articles published by The New York Times - Limits on Campaign Spending Are Invalid, Appeals Court Says (4/28/98) and The Washington Post - U.S. Appeals Court Rejects City Campaign Spending Cap (4/28/98).

On May 11, 1998, the City filed a Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc with the Sixth Circuit, which was denied.

On September 15, 1998, the Institute filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari on behalf of the City with the United States Supreme Court. On October 17, amicus curiae briefs were filed in support of the City by twenty-six state attorney generals and twenty-one secretaries of state or chief elections officers.

On November 16, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its denial of Cincinnati's petition for Supreme Court review. We are proud to have represented the City of Cincinnati in this historic case. The case drew support from President Clinton, twenty-six state attorneys general, the secretaries of state or chief elections officers from twenty-one states, and twenty U.S. senators. Editorial support from The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and the extensive media coverage of the Supreme Court's announcement, also served as evidence of the national importance of this case.