Vermont sidesteps Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance


MONTPELIER -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down limits on federal campaign contributions, The New York Times reported.

The Court ruled that it is unconstitutional, under the First Amendment, to limit the amount of money an individual can give to candidates, political action committees and parties.

The 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission strikes down caps on aggregate amounts of cash individuals can give to federal candidates, and constitutional scholars say the decision sets a precedent for state candidates as well.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that only "quid pro quo corruption" could restrict the First Amendment rights of citizens to "choose who shall govern them."

It's the most important ruling on campaign finance since the 2010 Citizens United case, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on "independent expenditures" (typically polls, ads and mailings) to influence elections. Money, the court has ruled, is tantamount to free speech.

The Vermont Legislature approved new campaign finance rules this year as the McCutcheon case was under consideration. Lawmakers included an escape clause for a cap on aggregate limits in the law, pending the results of the case. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill into law early this session.

Act 90 puts an aggregate limit of $40,000 on contributions from "single sources" to candidates or parties. The McCutcheon ruling allows limitless contributions from an individual to candidates, PACs and parties.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chair of House Government Operations, which shaped the legislation, said the decision is very discouraging.

"I do believe money is the biggest factor in elections and it keeps piling up," Sweaney said. "The more money you have, the better your chances and the more people you know with money, the better your chances. It's a feeding frenzy I see in Washington."

Cheryl Hanna, a professor of constitutional law at the Vermont Law School, says lawmakers were wise to put a contingency plan in state statute.

"It was a good example of the state Legislature paying attention to what is happening in federal constitutional law and crafting a statute that would survive in this case was a well thought out strategy," Hanna said.

The ruling shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the Supreme Court since the Sorrell decision in 2006 when the state's limits on campaign contributions were struck down, she said.

The McCutcheon case isn't as far sweeping as Citizens United, Hanna said, it is just another example of the court refraining from limiting the ability of individuals to give money to PACs and candidates

The ruling will only affect a handful of people "who are able to make that kind of spend," Hanna said. The ability of people of means to influence elections, she said, "will likely be magnified by this decision."

The question, she said, is whether larger amounts of campaign money is changing the outcome of elections and the outcome of policy decisions.

The other concern people have about the decision, Hanna said, is whether voters will have a much smaller voice in the process.

"The other thing people worry about - even if this money isn't influencing elections - is whether it creates the appearance that the democratic process has been hijacked by people with significant means," Hanna said.

If it appears that unlimited contributions undermine democracy, she said an argument could be made that it infringes on free speech.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly supported campaign finance disclosure laws, Hanna says. Congress and state Legislatures could adopt much more stringent rules around disclosure without running afoul of free speech precedents.

"That was notable," Hanna said. "While the majority struck down limits they reiterated support for disclosure."

Hanna said the Court did not consider campaign finance limits for candidates in this ruling and left open the possibility that they could strike down caps on giving to politicians in a future decision.

Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were quick to condemn the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling in separate statements:


[The Supreme Court Wednesday issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 decision, the Court, once again, reversed long-standing precedent and declared aggregate limits on campaign contributions in elections to be unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.]

"Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its controversial Citizens United decision, five justices once again have decided to rule on the side of moneyed interests and against the American people.

"As Justice Breyer warned in his dissent, 'Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n, today's decision eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.' I could not agree with him more.

"With this latest shock to our electoral system, the divided Roberts court again chose to dismantle campaign finance laws which had protected hardworking Americans for decades. This ruling will empower billionaires to drown out the voices of everyday Americans in all future campaigns, threatening all states, and especially smaller states like Vermont. It is yet another blow to a democracy for all Americans. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I intend to hold a hearing about the impact of these alarming Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated our campaign finance laws."


"Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government.

"What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in? To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with 'freedom of speech' is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process."


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