NVRI: National Voting Rights Institute

NVRI Press Release: June 26, 2006

For Immediate Release

Contacts:
Stuart Comstock-Gay (Executive Director, NVRI) – (617) 529-1406
Brenda Wright (Managing Attorney, NVRI) – (617) 624-3900 x. 13
Paul Burns (Executive Director, Vermont-PIRG) – (802) 223-8421 x. 4095
Adam Lioz (National Democracy Advocate, Vermont-PIRG) – (202) 251-8519

SPLINTERED SUPREME COURT OVERTURNS VERMONT'S CAMPAIGN SPENDING, CONTRIBUTION LIMITS

NARROW MAJORITY LIMITS STATES' AUTHORITY TO FIGHT CORRUPTING INFLUENCE OF MONEY ON ELECTIONS


WASHINGTON, DC: - The U.S. Supreme Court today announced its decision in Randall v. Sorrell, a case addressing the constitutionality of Vermont's comprehensive campaign finance law, passed in 1997.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, Executive Director of the National Voting Rights Institute, which defended the law alongside the state of Vermont, had this statement on the decision.
    Even while we watch elected officials being marched off to jail for corrupt activities, today's decision gives money an even larger role in elections. The decision marks a lost opportunity to end the arms race for campaign cash and make elections a contest of ideas rather than dollars, but the struggle for reform will continue. This will intensify support for voluntary public financing systems, and in the end, a constitutional amendment to allow mandatory spending limits may be necessary. The Supreme Court upheld the poll tax twice before it was finally struck down, and today's decision striking down spending limits likewise will not stand the test of time.
In striking down Vermont's limits on campaign expenditures, a narrow majority declined to overrule the Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which struck down limits on congressional campaign spending. 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. (Click here to read the opinions issued by the Court.)

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:
  • the absence of an automatic adjustment for inflation;
  • the fact that Vermont's limits were lower than those of most states;
  • the fact that the limits applied equally to donations by political parties as to individuals;
  • the fact that only one contribution was allowed for both the primary and general election;
  • the absence of exceptions for some kinds of volunteer activities
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.

Paul Burns, Executive Director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), which led the fight to enact Vermont's reform law, stated,
    Vermonters spoke out loudly and clearly for reducing the influence of money in politics and the Supreme Court turned a deaf ear. Instead of allowing us to level the playing field, the Justices have pushed average folks to the sidelines and preserved a clear path to power for wealthy donors.

    The First Amendment was never intended to give wealthy special interests a stranglehold on elections-but this ruling undermines Vermont citizens and all Americans who are working to protect the integrity of their democracy and participate equally in the political process.
Recent survey research, available at http://www.demos.org/page422.cfm, shows overwhelming public support - among Republicans, Democrats and independents alike - for limits on campaign spending.

Justice Stevens, one of the dissenters, wrote, "When campaign costs are so high that only the rich have the reach to throw their hats into the ring, we fail 'to protect the political process from undue influence of large aggregations of capital and to promote individual responsibility for democratic government' . . . . I am firmly persuaded that the Framers would have been appalled by the impact of modern fundraising practices on the ability of elected officials to perform their public responsibilities."

The dissenters also pointed out that the Court's decision to strike Vermont's contribution limits conflicted with past precedent granting broad deference to states in setting limits, and ignored "our self-admonition against second-guessing legislative judgments about the risk of corruption."

"Only a tiny fraction of Americans can afford large donations to candidates. A person's political voice should not depend on the size of his bank account. We will continue fighting for reasonable contribution limits and other reforms that promote access and participation by ordinary citizens in the electoral process," said Comstock-Gay.

Vermont's campaign finance law imposed caps on overall candidate spending, provided public financing for some statewide elections, and imposed contribution limits of $200 per election cycle for candidates for state representative, $300 for candidates for state senate, and $400 for gubernatorial candidates.

NVRI and PIRG are part of a coalition of public interest groups helping to defend campaign finance spending limits legislation nationwide, and support other means to reduce the overwhelming impact of money on elections. The following coalition members are available for comment. (Statements from some of them are attached).
  • Deborah Goldberg, Director of Democracy Program at Brennan Center for Justice – (212) 998-6748
    The Brennan Center has long been involved with litigation surrounding campaign finance, including both expenditure and contribution limits.
  • Nick Nyhart, Executive Director of Public Campaign – (202) 293-0222
    Public Campaign helps to coordinate many efforts across the country to pass public financing of elections.
  • Chellie Pingree, President of Common Cause – (202) 736-5740
    Common Cause has been a leader in campaign finance issues for decades.
  • Derek Cressman, TheRestofUs.org – (916) 446-4741
In addition, contact information for experts on campaign finance and constitutional law is as follows:
  • Professor Spencer A. Overton, George Washington University Law School – (301) 502-9703 or (301) 625-7736
    Expert on campaign finance and constitutional law.
  • Professor Mark C. Alexander, Seton Hall University Law School – (973) 735-3600
    Expert on campaign finance and constitutional law.
About NVRI. The National Voting Rights Institute (www.nvri.org) is a Boston-based, non-partisan, non-profit organization committed to making real the promise of American democracy that meaningful political participation and power should be accessible to all regardless of economic or social status. NVRI represents a number of organizations and individuals defending the constitutionality of the Vermont law.

About VPIRG. The State PIRGs – a national network of nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest advocacy organizations – work to preserve the environment, protect consumers, and promote accountable government. With 20,000 members statewide, Vermont PIRG is Vermont’s largest environmental and consumer watchdog organization.