WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court dealt a defeat yesterday to liberal reformers who sought to sharply limit the impact of money in politics.
In a 6-3 decision, the court struck down a novel Vermont law that would have strictly limited how much state candidates can spend on their campaigns, as well as how much donors can give them.
Had the law been upheld, these reformers saw it as a model for other states to limit campaign spending. Instead, the justices said the law violated the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of speech.
Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court adopted the view that money is speech and required the government to tread cautiously when it limits the funding of political campaigns. The 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo upheld what were deemed to be reasonable federal limits on contributions to candidates but struck down limits on how much candidates could spend.
Currently, for example, individuals may give no more than $2,000 to federal candidates during an election cycle, but the candidates may spend as much as they can raise.
That two-part standard has remained the law ever since, and it was upheld again yesterday - despite dissents from the court's liberal and conservative wings.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a Clinton appointee, spoke for the court in striking down the Vermont law, and he was joined by the two Bush appointees: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. They described the Buckley decision as a well-established precedent.
Vermont's politicians, including then-Gov. Howard Dean, hoped to set a new precedent that could rid states of big-money ad campaigns. They proposed that candidates for governor be limited to spending no more than $300,000 on their campaigns, while state senators would be limited to $4,000.
Donors could give no more than $400 to any candidate for statewide office, such as governor. Limits for legislators were lower: only $200 per person could be given to a candidate seeking election as a state representative.
Because of legal challenges, these limits had not gone into effect.
Breyer called the limits absurdly low and said they would prevent challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbents. These limits "would reduce the voice of the political parties in Vermont to a whisper," he said, in the case of Randall v. Sorrell.
Mandatory spending limits have never been upheld, he noted, because they clearly violate the free-speech rights of the candidate. Legal experts said yesterday's opinion did not appear to change the law in any significant way.
But sharp differences remain. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said they would strike down part of the Buckley ruling and give contributors a free-speech right to donate as much as they would like to a candidate. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he remained skeptical of the court's approach to campaign funding laws.
All three voted to strike down the Vermont law.
From the opposite direction, Justice John Paul Stevens said he would overrule the part of the Buckley decision that stands in the way of spending limits.
Justice David H. Souter, a New Hampshire native, said he would uphold Vermont's effort to restore grass-roots democracy. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined his dissent.
The Vermont law had been defended by a coalition of liberal reformers, led by the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute and Common Cause. Stuart Comstock-Gay, the group's executive director, said yesterday's decision "marks a lost opportunity to end the arms race for campaign cash."
The National Republican Party, the National Right to Life Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union led the challenge to the Vermont law.
Despite the ruling, reformers remain free to seek public funding of campaigns or voluntary agreements in which candidates would limit their spending in exchange for some public funds.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.
In other action
Yesterday, the justices also:
Agreed to consider next term whether the Bush administration must regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles to help combat global warming.
Ruled 5-4 that Kansas' death penalty law does not violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Decided by a 7-2 vote that prosecutors' failure to submit to a jury a factor used in sentencing is not grounds for automatic reversals of convictions.
By a 6-3 vote, said parents cannot collect fees for experts they use while prevailing in lawsuits seeking to force public school districts to pay for the private education of their disabled children.
Ruled 5-4 that defendants are automatically entitled to a new trial if their choice of a privately retained defense lawyer is wrongly blocked.