Campaign Finance, the Parties and the Court: A Comment on Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee V. Federal Elections Commission

By Briffault, Richard | Constitutional Commentary, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Campaign Finance, the Parties and the Court: A Comment on Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee V. Federal Elections Commission


Briffault, Richard, Constitutional Commentary


Last term, in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission,(1) the Supreme Court considered a direct attack on the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act's ("FECA") limits on political party expenditures. Colorado Republican was the Court's first campaign finance case in six years and the first in which the four Justices appointed by Presidents Bush and Clinton had an opportunity to participate. Colorado Republican was also the first case in the twenty-year regime of Buckley v. Valeo(2) concerned with the constitutionality of restrictions on parties.(3) Coming at a time of rising public concern, increased legislative activity, and continued academic ferment over campaign finance, Colorado Republican offered the promise of clarifying the current Court's approach to campaign finance regulation, marking out the contours of the rights of parties in the campaign finance context, and assessing the implications of judicial doctrine for potential legislative changes.

The Court, however, failed to resolve the central issue in the case. Instead, it fragmented into four opinions, none of which commanded the votes of more than three Justices.(4) A seven-member majority rejected the effort of the Federal Elections Commission ("FEC") to enforce FECA in the case before it, but the three Justices who joined the pivotal opinion authored by Justice Breyer limited their views -- and, thus, the holding of the Court -- to the facts of the case and declined to reach the broader issue of the constitutionality of limits on party involvement in campaign finance. The six Justices who did reach the issue were sharply divided. Moreover, one Justice directly, and two others implicitly, challenged Buckley v. Valeo's basic approach to campaign finance regulation -- although their different opinions embraced decidedly different perspectives.

Colorado Republican illustrates nicely the conceptual difficulties built into the Court's campaign finance doctrine. Buckley's central concerns have proven difficult to apply in practice or justify in theory, and the Court has vacillated with respect to the degree of deference to be given to the judgment of the political branches concerning whether campaign practices present dangers that may be the basis for regulation.

Moreover, political party spending is particularly difficult to fit into the Court's conceptual framework because party activities bridge Buckley's basic doctrinal categories. Many academics have urged a more party-centered approach to campaign finance -- the Committee for Party Renewal filed an amicus brief in the case -- claiming it would reduce the influence of special interests on the political process. However, so long as parties themselves receive their funds from private individuals and organizations, it is questionable whether a party-centered system would do much to ameliorate special interest influence. Moreover, judicial establishment of an unlimited party spending right could have broader effects on the campaign finance laws.

Part I of this comment briefly summarizes the facts, statutory framework, and procedural history of Colorado Republican. Part II reviews the Buckley doctrine. Parts III and IV examine and appraise the Court's multiple opinions. Finally, Parts V and VI consider the implications of constitutional protection of party spending for the campaign finance laws, and the implications of Colorado Republican for the future of campaign finance doctrine.

I. BACKGROUND: THE FACTS, THE STATUTE, AND

THE PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Colorado Republican was ten years in the making. In January 1986, then-Representative Tim Wirth declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by Gary Hart that fall.(5) Shortly thereafter, Wirth began to run ads outlining his position on a number of issues. In April and May 1986, the Colorado Republican Party paid for three radio ads and two pamphlets criticizing Wirth's voting record, mentioning that he was running for the Senate, and charging Wirth with misrepresenting his record in his ads. …

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