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Both the expenditure limitations and the contribution limitations of Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17, § 2801 et seq., are inconsistent with the First Amendment.
Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17, § 2805a limited, in amounts that varied according to the office being sought, during a "two-year general election cycle" (the primary election plus the general election), both the amounts that candidates for state office were allowed to spend on their election campaigns (expenditure limits), and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties were allowed to contribute to those campaigns (contribution limits). The expenditure limits defined "expenditure" broadly, and generally counted against the limits those expenditures over $50 made on a candidate's behalf by others. On the other hand, the contribution limits defined "contribution" broadly but did not count contributions by the candidate or the candidate's family. A number of entities involved in Vermont politics brought a suit against state officials who were responsible for enforcing the campaign-finance statute. The United States District Court for the District of Vermont held that the statute's expenditure limits violated the Federal Constitution's First Amendment, and limits on political parties' contributions to candidates were unconstitutional. However, the district court held that the statute's other contribution limits were constitutional. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that all of the statute's contribution limits were constitutional, and the expenditure limits might be constitutional, because they were supported by compelling interests in preventing corruption or its appearance and in limiting the time that state officials had to spend raising campaign funds. The Court of Appeals ordered a remand for the District Court to determine whether the expenditure limits were narrowly tailored to those interests. The U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari.
Were the expenditure limits and the contribution limits of Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17, § 2805a unconstitutional?
In a plurality opinion, the Court concluded that the expenditure limits of Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17, § 2805a were unconstitutional as Vermont's primary justification for imposing its expenditure limits was not significantly different from Congress' rationale for the Buckley limits, preventing corruption and its appearance. The Court held that it was highly unlikely that fuller consideration of the time protection rationale, i.e., that expenditure limits are necessary in order to reduce the amount of time candidates must spend raising money, would have changed Buckley's result. The Court was convinced that, from a constitutional perspective, the contribution limits of Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17, § 2805 were too restrictive and not narrowly tailored; this conclusion was reached not merely on the low dollar amounts of the limits themselves, but also on the substantial restrictions on the ability of candidates to raise the funds necessary to run a competitive election, on the ability of political parties to help their candidates get elected, and on the ability of individual citizens to volunteer their time to campaigns.