Legal Library

Vermont Right to Life Committee, Inc. v. Sorrell


Shortly after their enactment in 1997, the Vermont Right to Life Committee challenged provisions of Vermont state law that require broader disclosure of sources of campaign finance for state elections candidates. The Institute serves as lead counsel in this case, representing a coalition that includes the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause/Vermont, the League of Women Voters of Vermont, and Rural Vermont. This group worked for two years to enact this pathbreaking campaign finance reform legislation.

In May 1998, the Institute filed a memorandum of law in opposition to plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and a memorandum of law in support of defendant-intervenors' motion for summary judgment.

In September 1998, the federal district court in Burlington, Vermont upheld the reporting and disclosure requirements for political advertisements, rejecting the claims of the Vermont Right to Life Committee that the laws violated the First Amendment. The court ruled that Vermont could require political advertisements to identify their sponsors and could regulate spending on "mass media" advertisements if the ads "expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate." This interpretation of the Vermont provisions, the district court held, would avoid infringing First Amendment rights while permitting enhanced public disclosure of campaign spending. The Right to Life Committee appealed this ruling. Read the appellate brief submitted by the Institute.

On June 15, 2000, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the federal district court did not have the authority to adopt a narrowing interpretation of the reporting and disclosure laws that would save their constitutionality. The ruling sent the case back to the federal district court to determine if the case should be sent to the Vermont Supreme Court to allow that court to adopt a narrower interpretation of the provisions. The federal appeals court said that a narrowing interpretation must come from the Vermont state courts, not from a federal district court. The ruling, therefore, left the door open for the provisions to still be upheld, provided that the Vermont Supreme Court – should it face this review — interprets the laws in a way that avoids First Amendment obstacles.

On June 23, 2000, in an unusual development, the Second Circuit announced that one of the judges from the three-judge panel in this case had recused himself from the case. The Second Circuit appointed a new judge to replace him, and the reconstituted panel reissued the prior ruling with minor changes on July 21, 2000.

The Institute has participated in all aspects of the legal defense of these provisions at the federal district court and federal appeals court levels, and will continue that defense work before the Vermont state courts, if necessary. Litigation in this case is likely to continue through 2001.