Case name: Randall v. Sorrell
Background: In 1997, Vermont enacted a campaign-finance law that imposed severe restrictions on expenditures by candidates for state office, and on contributions to candidates and parties by individuals and corporations. The spending limits ranged from $300,000 for gubernatorial candidates, down to $2,000 for state representatives. Individuals and organizations, including political parties, were also limited in what they could contribute to campaigns by limits as low as $200 for candidates for state representatives. A federal district court judge struck down the law, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ruled that all parts of the Vermont law were constitutional.
Ruling: Citing the 1976 precedent Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court found both the expenditure and contribution limits in Vermont's law unconstitutional. Nothing that has happened in the 30 years since Buckley, the Court said, justifies reversing its determination that expenditure limits violate freedom of speech. Buckley upheld contribution limits. but the Court found that the Vermont limits were so low that they gave incumbents an advantage, and weakened the voice of political parties.
Verbatim: From Justice Stephen Breyer's opinion for himself, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito Jr.: "The rule of law demands that adhering to our prior case law be the norm ... . This is especially true where, as here, the principle has become settled through iteration and reiteration over a long period of time. We can find here no such special justification that would require us to overrule Buckley. Subsequent case law has not made Buckley a legal anomaly or otherwise undermined its basic legal principles ... . The respondents have not shown, for example, any dramatic increase in corruption or its appearance in Vermont; nor have they shown that expenditure limits are the only way to attack that problem."
From Justice Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion: "I continue to believe that Buckley provides insufficient protection to political speech, the core of the First Amendment. The illegitimacy of Buckley is further underscored by the continuing inability of the Court (and the plurality here) to apply Buckley in a coherent and principled fashion. As a result, stare decisis should pose no bar to overruling Buckley and replacing it with a standard faithful to the First Amendment."From Justice John Paul Stevens's dissent: "The Buckley Court never explicitly addressed whether the pernicious effects of endless fundraising can serve as a compelling state interest that justifies expenditure limit yet its silence, in light of the record before it, suggests that it implicitly treated this proposed interest insufficient. Assuming this to be true, however, I am convinced that Buckley's holding on expenditure limits is wrong, and that the time has come to overrule it."
Lineup: Justice Stephen Breyer was joined in most of his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia also joined in the judgment striking down the Vermont law, but on different grounds. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissent, as did Justice David Souter. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Souter's dissent.
First Amendment impact: If nothing else, the ruling made clear that the Supreme Court will continue to play a dominant, make-or-break role in assessing how actions of the other branches affect the democratic election process. In most other respects, the ruling changed little. Vermont and other campaign reform advocates hoped the case would trigger a reexamination of the Buckley precedent in light of the continued high costs of campaigns and the perception that special interests have undue influence over candidates and the election process. But the ruling upheld Buckley and treated Vermont's law as reform effort that went too far. The ruling also represented the first time new justices Roberts and Alito participated in decisions on campaign finance laws, and their votes indicate they are not interested in any major change in the Court's doctrine.