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High Court Wounds Vermontâ€TMs Campaign Financing Laws

by NewStandard Staff

June 28, 2006 – The US Supreme Court struck down portions of Vermont’s campaign-finance law Monday, saying that limits on candidates’ expenditures and individuals’ donations to campaigns violate the First Amendment.

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The disputed provisions, passed in 1997, established some of the strictest campaign-finance limits in the nation. Hailed by groups attempting to restrict the influence of money in politics, the law prohibits individuals or interest groups from donating more than $400 to gubernatorial candidates, $300 to state senate hopefuls, and $200 to candidates for state representative or any local office.

It also limited candidates running for governor from spending more than $300,000, state senator hopefuls from spending more than 16,500 and candidates for state representative from spending more than $2,000.

The court’s ruling on the case was splintered, with the nine justices writing six separate opinions. The majority, to differing degrees, agreed that Vermont’s restrictions on campaign expenditures could limit candidate’s ability to buy the amount of media needed to speak to the public about their platforms. The majority of justices also determined that the restrictions on campaign contributions could prevent challengers from raising the money needed to get their messages out when challenging incumbents.

The American Civil Liberties Union litigated the case against the Vermont laws on behalf of the Libertarian Party of Vermont, the Vermont Right to Life Committee’s Fund for Independent Political Expenditures, and several individuals.

In a press statement responding to the ruling, ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said: “Contribution limits cannot be set so low that they prevent candidates from getting their message to the voters. By crossing that line, Vermont's law had less to do with preventing corruption than suppressing speech.�

But many public-interest groups disagreed. Organizations like the NAACP, the Latino Issues Forum, the Asian American Justice Center and the California Clean Money Campaign asked the Supreme Court to uphold Vermont’s limits.

In a press statement Monday, Paul Burns, Executive Director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said: “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.�

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute, another group that defended Vermont’s law, called the ruling “a lost opportunity to end the arms race for campaign cash and make elections a contest of ideas rather than dollars.� But he said, the Supreme Court ruling would “intensify support for voluntary public financing systems.�

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Brief originally appeared in the June 28, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
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