Justices reject strict campaign finance limits

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court on
Monday struck down strict limits for money contributions and
spending for state political campaigns, dealing a setback to
advocates of campaign finance regulation.

By a 6-3 vote, the justices overturned a ruling that
largely upheld Vermont’s campaign finance law and ruled the
restrictions, the strictest in the nation, violated
constitutional free-speech rights.

The nation’s highest court said the spending limits had to
be struck down in light of its landmark 1976 ruling on a
similar federal law and the contribution limits because they
were much lower than those previously upheld.

The case was the first campaign finance law ruling for
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito,
conservatives appointed by President George W. Bush. They both
voted to strike down the law.

The court’s decision was a setback for those who sought to
reduce the influence of money in politics and to relieve
candidates from devoting so much time to raising large sums.

Justice John Paul Stevens said in dissent the authors of
the Constitution “would have been appalled by the impact of
modern fund-raising practices on the ability of elected
official to perform their public responsibilities.”

Stuart Comstock-Gay of the National Voting Rights
Institute, which defended the law, said the ruling “marks a
lost opportunity to end the arms race for campaign cash.

“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,” he said.

Joan Claybrook, president of the group Public Citizen, said
citizens should be able to set reasonable fundraising limits to
deter a war-chest mentality that bred corruption.

The law was adopted in 1997 and was supported by
then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is now the Democratic Party
chairman after an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004.

It limits spending by candidates for governor to $300,000,
for lieutenant governor to $100,000 and other statewide races
to $45,000. It also limits spending on races for the state
legislature and individual contributions to $200 or $400 in a
two-year period, depending on the race.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said the
Vermont spending limits were too restrictive, violated First
Amendment free-speech rights and were substantially similar to
those struck down in the 1976 Supreme Court ruling.

He said contribution limits that are too low also can harm
the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting
effective campaigns against incumbents.

The court refused to revisit its 1976 ruling that struck
down federal campaign-spending limits adopted after the
Watergate scandal but allowed political contributions
considerably higher than those in Vermont.