U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Vermont’s Campaign Expenditure and Contribution Limits

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 26, 2006

Arlington, Va. – Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of Vermont’s campaign finance regulations as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Specifically, the Court held that Vermont’s restrictions on how much a campaign could spend and its limitations on how much people could contribute to a campaign “impose burdens upon First Amendment interests that . . . are disproportionately severe.” The case is Randall v. Sorrell.

“Today’s decision affirms vital First Amendment protections for political speech—but much more remains to be done,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, which filed a friend of the court brief, joined by the Cato Institute, the Center for Competitive Politics, the Goldwater Institute and the Reason Foundation, on the side of those challenging Vermont’s law. “The Court made clear that limits on expenditures by campaigns interfere with core political expression and are not permitted under the First Amendment. And for the first time ever, the Court also recognized that contribution limits can impact political speech to the point where such limits are unconstitutional. Unfortunately, only Justices Thomas and Scalia were willing to correct the Court’s past errors and give the same protections to political contributions that the Court gives to expenditures.”

A 6-3 majority of the High Court struck down Vermont’s severe limits on how much a candidate could spend in pursuing office, saying the regulations reduced “the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.” Also by a 6-3 margin, the Court struck down the state’s limit on how much individuals, political committees and political parties could contribute to a campaign, noting that limits that are “too low” protect incumbents from electoral challenge and reduce “democratic accountability.” Unfortunately, the fractured Court only agreed on the end result for contribution limits—not the rationale behind it.

“It is always good news when the Court strikes down draconian campaign finance laws, but the nation deserves more than fractured opinions with no clear standards,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Steve Simpson, the lead attorney in a case challenging Colorado’s application of its campaign finance laws to think tanks and policy groups. “The First Amendment is simple and elegant. There is no reason that decisions interpreting it should be so convoluted and confusing.”

“This decision should be a clear message to federal, state and local governments that wish to use campaign finance laws to limit or regulate pure political speech,” said Bill Maurer, the executive director of IJ’s Washington Chapter, whose challenge to the application of Washington’s campaign finance laws to on-air commentary about an initiative campaign is now being considered by the Washington Supreme Court. “Pure political expression—such as the expenditure of money by a campaign to get its message out—is entirely off limits to government regulation.”