548 U.S. 230 (2006), 04-1528, Randall v. Sorrell

Docket Nº:Nos. 04-1528, 04-1530, 04-1697.
Citation:548 U.S. 230, 126 S.Ct. 2479, 165 L.Ed.2d 482
Party Name:Neil RANDALL et al., Petitioners, v. William H. SORRELL et al. Vermont Republican State Committee, Et Al., Petitioners, v. William H. SORRELL et al. William H. Sorrell, et al., Petitioners, v. Neil Randall et al.
Case Date:June 26, 2006
Court:United States Supreme Court

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548 U.S. 230 (2006)

126 S.Ct. 2479, 165 L.Ed.2d 482

Neil RANDALL et al., Petitioners,


William H. SORRELL et al.

Vermont Republican State Committee, Et Al., Petitioners,


William H. SORRELL et al.

William H. Sorrell, et al., Petitioners,


Neil Randall et al.

Nos. 04-1528, 04-1530, 04-1697.

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 2006 [*]

Argued February 28, 2006.

[126 S.Ct. 2480] Syllabus [*]

Vermont's Act 64 stringently limits both the amounts that candidates for state [126 S.Ct. 2481] office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute to those campaigns. Soon after Act 64 became law, the petitioners--individuals who have run for state office, citizens who vote in state elections and contribute to campaigns, and political parties and committees participating in state politics--brought this suit against the respondents, state officials charged with enforcing the Act. The District Court held that Act 64's expenditure limits violate the First Amendment, see Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659, and that the Act's limits on political parties' contributions to candidates were unconstitutional, but found the other contribution limits constitutional. The Second Circuit held that all of the Act's contribution limits are constitutional, ruled that the expenditure limits may be constitutional because they are supported by compelling interests in preventing corruption or its appearance and in limiting the time state officials must spend raising campaign funds, and remanded for the District Court to determine whether the expenditure limits were narrowly tailored to those interests.


The judgment is reversed, and the cases are remanded.

382 F.3d 91, reversed and remanded.

Justice Breyer, joined by The Chief Justice and Justice Alito, concluded in Parts I, II-B-3, III, and IV that both of Act 64's sets of limitations are inconsistent with the First Amendment. Pp. 241-242, 244-263.

1. The expenditure limits violate the First Amendment's free speech guarantees under Buckley. Pp. 241-242, 244-246.

(a) In Buckley, the Court held, inter alia, that the Government's asserted interest in preventing "corruption and the appearance of corruption," 424 U.S., at 25, 96 S.Ct. 612, provided sufficient justification for the contribution limitations imposed on campaigns for federal office by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, id., at 23-38, 96 S.Ct. 612, but that FECA's expenditure limitations violated the First Amendment, id., at 39-59, 96 S.Ct. 612.

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The Court explained that the difference between the two kinds of limitations is that expenditure limits "impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedoms of political expression and association than" do contribution limits. Id., at 23, 96 S.Ct. 612. Contribution limits, though a "marginal restriction," nevertheless leave the contributor "fre[e] to discuss candidates and issues." Id., at 20-21, 96 S.Ct. 612. Expenditure limits, by contrast, impose "[a] restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication," id., at 19, 96 S.Ct. 612, and thereby necessarily "reduc[e] the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached," ibid. For over 30 years, in considering the constitutionality of a host of campaign finance statutes, this Court has adhered to Buckley's constraints, including those on expenditure limits. See, e.g., McConnell v. Federal Election Comm'n, 540 U.S. 93, 134, 124 S.Ct. 619, 157 L.Ed.2d 491. Pp. 241-242.

(b) The respondents argue unpersuasively that Buckley should be distinguished from the present cases on a ground they say Buckley did not consider: that expenditure limits help to protect candidates from spending too much time raising money rather than devoting that time to campaigning among ordinary voters. There is no significant basis for that distinction. [126 S.Ct. 2482] Act 64's expenditure limits are not substantially different from those at issue in Buckley. Nor is Vermont's primary justification for imposing its expenditure limits significantly different from Congress' rationale for the Buckley limits: preventing corruption and its appearance. The respondents say unpersuasively that, had the Buckley Court considered the time protection rationale for expenditure limits, the Court would have upheld those limits in the FECA. The Buckley Court, however, was aware of the connection between expenditure limits and a reduction in fund-raising time. And, in any event, the connection seems perfectly obvious. Under these circumstances, the respondents' argument amounts to no more than an invitation so to limit Buckley's holding as effectively to overrule it. That invitation is declined. Pp. 244-246.

2. Act 64's contribution limits violate the First Amendment because those limits, in their specific details, burden protected interests in a manner disproportionate to the public purposes they were enacted to advance. Pp. 246-263.

(a) In upholding the $1,000 contribution limit before it, the Buckley Court recognized, inter alia, that such limits, unlike expenditure limits, "involv[e] little direct restraint on" the contributor's speech, 424 U.S., at 21, 96 S.Ct. 612, and are permissible as long as the government demonstrates that they are "closely drawn" to match a "sufficiently important interest," id., at 25, 96 S.Ct. 612. It found that the interest there advanced, "prevent[ing] corruption" and its "appearance," was "sufficiently important" to justify the contribution limits, id., at 25-26, 96 S.Ct. 612, and that those limits were "closely

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drawn." Although recognizing that, in determining whether a particular contribution limit was "closely drawn," the amount, or level, of that limit could make a difference, see id., at 21, 96 S.Ct. 612, the Court added that such "distinctions in degree become significant only when they ... amount to differences in kind," id., at 30, 96 S.Ct. 612. Pointing out that it had "no scalpel to probe, whether, say, a $2,000 ceiling might not serve as well as $1,000," ibid., the Court found "no indication" that FECA's contribution limitations would have "any dramatic adverse effect on the funding of campaigns," id., at 21, 96 S.Ct. 612. Since Buckley, the Court has consistently upheld contribution limits in other statutes, but has recognized that such limits might sometimes work more harm to protected First Amendment interests than their anticorruption objectives could justify, see, e.g., Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 377, 395-397, 120 S.Ct. 897, 145 L.Ed.2d 886. Pp. 246 - 248.

(b) Although the Court has "no scalpel to probe," 424 U.S., at 30, 96 S.Ct. 612, with exactitude whether particular contribution limits are too low and normally defers to the legislature in that regard, it must nevertheless recognize the existence of some lower bound, as Buckley acknowledges. While the interests served by contribution limits, preventing corruption and its appearance, "directly implicate the integrity of our electoral process," McConnell, supra, at 136, 124 S.Ct. 619, that does not simply mean the lower the limit, the better. Contribution limits that are too low also can harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability. Where there is strong indication in a particular case, i.e., danger signs, that such risks exist (both present in kind and likely serious in degree), courts, including appellate courts, must review the record independently and carefully with an eye toward assessing the statute's "tailoring," i.e., toward assessing the restrictions' [126 S.Ct. 2483] proportionality. See Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, 499, 104 S.Ct. 1949, 80 L.Ed.2d 502. Danger signs that Act 64's contribution limits may fall outside tolerable First Amendment limits are present here. They are substantially lower than both the limits the Court has previously upheld and the comparable limits in force in other States. Consequently, the record must be examined to determine whether Act 64's contribution limits are "closely drawn" to match the State's interests. Pp. 248-253.

(c) The record demonstrates that, from a constitutional perspective, Act 64's contribution limits are too restrictive. Five sets of factors, taken together, lead to the conclusion that those limits are not narrowly tailored. First, the record suggests, though it does not conclusively prove, that Act 64's contribution limits will significantly restrict the amount of funding available for challengers to run competitive campaigns. Second, Act 64's insistence that a political party and all of its

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affiliates together abide by exactly the same low $200 to $400 contribution limits that apply to individual contributors threatens harm to a particularly important political right, the right to associate in a political party. See, e.g., California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567, 574, 120 S.Ct. 2402, 147 L.Ed.2d 502. Although the Court upheld federal limits on political parties' contributions to candidates in Federal Election Comm'n v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Comm., 533 U.S. 431, 121 S.Ct. 2351, 150 L.Ed.2d 461, the limits there at issue were far less problematic, for they were significantly higher than Act 64's limits, see, e.g., id., at 438-439, and n. 3, 121 S.Ct. 2351, and they were much higher than the federal limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, see id., at 453, 121 S.Ct. 2351. Third, Act 64's treatment of volunteer services aggravates the problem. Although the Act excludes uncompensated volunteer services from its...

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